On India’s tardy progress under Stimac and a lesson from Vietnam

Results against Afghanistan and Bangladesh were the real disappointment. India managed one win against them in four games
India's Sandesh Jhingan applauds fans after the match against Afghanistan in Doha on Tuesday. (REUTERS) PREMIUM
India's Sandesh Jhingan applauds fans after the match against Afghanistan in Doha on Tuesday. (REUTERS)
Updated on Jun 16, 2021 08:57 PM IST
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ByBhargab Sarmah, Guwahati

A little less than 19 years ago, India beat Vietnam in the final of the LG Cup. It was an unofficial competition which the Stephen Constantine-coached side used to prepare for the Busan Asian Games but the team showed a lot of promise beating Vietnam in their own den in Ho Chi Minh City.

A year before that with Sukhwinder Singh as coach, India had missed out on reaching the final round of the World Cup qualifiers by just a point. It remains the closest India have come to reaching that stage. Two decades on, the fortunes of India and Vietnam have headed in contrasting directions.

In 2007, when Vietnam reached the quarter-finals of the AFC Asian Cup, having played the group stages on home turf, many saw it as a flash in the pan. India’s 3-1 win over Vietnam in late-2010 in an international friendly in Pune – Sunil Chhetri scored a hattrick – when under Bob Houghton they were preparing for the 2011 Asian Cup, a tournament the Vietnamese side had failed to qualify for, seemed to suggest that there really wasn’t a gulf between the teams.

But on the night Igor Stimac’s India laboured to a 1-1 draw against Afghanistan in their final game of the World Cup qualifiers to finish with seven points from eight group E games that included just one victory, Vietnam secured – for the first time – a place in the final round of the World Cup qualifiers. Under coach Park Hang-seo, Vietnam finished with 17 points from eight games in a tough group that included heavyweights UAE and regional rivals Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

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For anyone with an eye on football in Asia, this was hardly a surprise. Vietnam’s elevation to continental elite has been a long time coming. The Southeast Asian nation has been strengthening its domestic youth structures and as a result, Vietnam’ have regularly qualified for major continental youth competitions.

Vietnam reached the AFC U-19 Championship semi-final in 2016 thereby qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2017 for the first time. At the AFC U-23 Championship in 2018, Vietnam reached the final and lost in extra time to Uzbekistan.

In 2019, Vietnam’s senior side reached the quarter-finals of the newly expanded, 24-team AFC Asian Cup. It was hardly a surprise then that in 2021, Vietnam have earned the right to compete with 11 other top Asian teams for World Cup berths.

While Vietnam’s football authorities have focused on developing and expanding the country’s national competitions in the long run, including the domestic league and youth competitions, it has also benefitted from localised youth structures which provide young players opportunities to grow through regular games.

These decentralised, regional structures are ably supported by reputed academies like the Hoang Ahn Gia Lai academy, which is credited with developing many of the U-23 players who starred at the 2018 competition, or the Promotion Fund of Vietnamese Football Talent Football Academy, which is one of the only three academies to be rated as “three star academy” by the Asian Football Confederation.

In comparison, India’s regional youth competitions are non-existent in some states and run for very short durations in most. The centralised competitions like youth I-League also do not provide a significant number of games for young footballers.

For India, the World Cup qualifiers were another reminder of the country’s standing in the sport. If India’s recent rise in the FIFA world rankings – they are 105 now having broken into the top-100 in 2018 when Constantine was back in charge – had lulled anyone into a perception of progress, the results certainly didn’t.

Compared to the last cycle of World Cup qualifiers, India have progressed. Then, India had finished bottom of the group with three points from eight games. But given the run of results after that disastrous qualifying round, when India went unbeaten for 12 games under Constantine en route to the 2019 Asian Cup qualification, there will be a sense of disappointment following the recent showings.

However, India’s position in the group – third – is hardly worse than expected. Clubbed alongside Asian champions Qatar and Oman, they would have had to punch above their weight to finish any higher.

But there will be a feeling of an opportunity missed after a promising display against Oman in the opening game that ended in a 2-1 loss in Guwahati. India held Qatar to a goalless draw in Doha in the next game and hope immediately soared. Only for it to come crashing down after draws against Bangladesh and Afghanistan with late equalisers.

The 1-0 defeat to Oman in the last qualifier before the pandemic and the loss to Qatar by a similar margin hide more than they reveal given the absence of any significant attacking threat from Stimac’s men. However, given the fact that India were playing against significantly stronger opponents, those results should hardly be a stick to beat the coach with.

The real disappointments have come against Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The 2-0 win against Bangladesh last week came after two late strikes by Chhetri. India’s goal in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw against Afghanistan came from a goalkeeping error. For all their domination, especially in the first half, India didn’t really test Afghanistan goalkeeper Ovays Azizi.

India have won just three of their last 22 competitive fixtures. Under Stimac, the team has managed two victories – one against Thailand in the King’s Cup and the other against Bangladesh last week – in a total of 15 games.

India assistant coach Shanmugam Venkatesh, who was part of the LG Cup squad and was brought into the national team’s coaching staff by Constantine, recently insisted in an interview to the All India Football Federation’s official website that “essential technicalities have improved notably” during Stimac’s time.

Venkatesh pointed to India’s improved figures in ball possession, attempted passes, pass accuracy, among other stats, under Stimac compared to the previous round of World Cup qualifiers. But one can argue that comparing these figures are highly misleading, not least because India’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign didn’t go very well.

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These comparisons are based on the premise that the job of a national team coach is primarily to improve the technical understanding and abilities of players. That Constantine didn’t care about his team’s possession or pass completion stats was always very obvious.

Under Constantine, India often played conservatively but the approach worked well after the disaster of the World Cup qualifiers. These improved results not only helped India secure a place in the Asian Cup but also to improve their world ranking. Stimac’s brief has been to get India to have more of the ball and play in a different way.

It is often said in the context of international football that how a national team fares hinges largely on its domestic structure. India are no different. In simple terms, a structure that produces a large pool of quality players will always have a strong chance of producing a national team where players can pass or control the ball well and thus do well in international football.

For Stimac, Asian Cup qualification will be the bare minimum expectation, now that the tournament features 24 teams. That is of course assuming he will get a contract extension beyond September.

Should that happen, the next round of the Asian Cup qualifiers, also the final round, will be the most important test for the Croatian. Among the 24 teams set to compete in that round next year, India will need to be in the six best ranked to avoid being drawn against heavyweights like Uzbekistan, Jordan and Bahrain. But after struggling against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, India will need to make significant improvements irrespective of who they are grouped with.

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Monday, December 06, 2021