India possibly achieved their greatest result in international football when they held the reigning Asian champions Qatar to a 0-0 draw in their second World Cup 2022 qualifier game in Doha last Tuesday.
Qatar, ranked 62nd in the world, are 41 places above India. And they were the Asian champions and had given a good account of themselves in Copa America 2019 against some of the elite teams like Argentina.
They had beaten every Asian team including heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, Japan, UAE and the likes this year, putting India's feat in perspective.
Also, India did the unthinkable without stars like Ashique Kuruniyan and Sunil Chhetri who had to sit out the game due to injury and illness. But a collective and inspired performance saw a bunch of spirited youngsters achieve the impossible in Doha and boosted the morale of the Indian football fraternity.
As we take stock of a brilliant result, much of the credit goes to the man at the helm of affairs. The spirit and the level-headedness India's youngsters showed against the mighty Maroons will be a vindication of coach Igor Stimac's methods. The result was not just a solid rearguard show but also showcased the game management and fitness levels of India.
The former Croatian international is only months into his new job but has already created a ripple. It should come as no surprise to anybody, given the stature of the 52-year-old.
Igor Stimac is arguably the most high profile coach the Indian national team has ever had. Some of the most famous names from yesteryears include Serbian coach Milovan Ciric, who was in charge of the national side in the 1980s. Ciric had the prior experience of working with Yugoslavia national team, Red Star Belgrade and Lazio. British coach Bob Houghton, who was in charge of the national team between 2006-2011, was also a very high profile manager but Stimac’s success as an international player as well as a coach sees him eclipse Milovan and Houghton in stature.
Stimac was an integral member of the Croatian national side which finished third in the World Cup 1998. This team is considered the golden generation of Croatia and Stimac was one of the leaders of that squad. He has also managed the Croatian national team in between 2012 and 2013.
The Croat’s stature as a player and coach has had a positive impact in the Indian dressing room, especially on the youngsters. There's no doubt that Stimac has inspired the players to bring out the best in themselves and it is reflected in the results in their first two qualifying matches (first match against Oman which ended in a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat). More importantly, he has helped the team focus on their own abilities than focus on opponents' strengths.
It is not coincidence that India got their most high profile result in international football under the tutelage of their most high profile coach. The All India Football Federation's (AIFF) vision has to be given credit here. The AIFF's Technical Committee had made it no secret that they wanted to hire a coach who would take India to the next level after Stephen Constantine stepped down.
They zeroed in on Stimac after an extensive process and they've been vindicated, judging by the Croatian's start to life with India.