A win against Kuwait will be biggest moment of my playing and coaching career: Igor Stimac

KOLKATA: A win in Thursday’s crucial match against Kuwait will virtually take India to their maiden appearance in the third round of the World Cup qualifiers and head coach Igor Stimac feels that feat can change the future of the country’s football.

Himself a member of the 1998 World Cup bronze-medal winning Croatian side, Stimac on Wednesday said India joining the Asian elite in the third round from where direct slots for the 2026 World Cup will be decided will the “biggest moment” of his entire career as footballer and coach.

“This can change the future of Indian football. Although I’m a foreigner in this country but I feel more like an Indian,” Stimac said at the pre-match press conference here.

“Honestly this is the biggest game altogether in my playing and coaching career and the simple reason is that we have chance to make 1.5 billion Indians happy tomorrow.

“We need to do everything to make it happen. that’s the reason this is biggest game of my career together in the coaching and playing days,” the 56-year-old said.

Currently at the second spot in their group with four points, India will consolidate that position if they beat Kuwait here.

Afghanistan, who also have four points and play Asian champions Qatar simultaneously on Thursday, have a goal difference of minus 10 as compared to minus three of India and that is expected to decide which team goes through to the third round as second-place finisher in the group.

India had beaten Kuwait 1-0 in the first leg in Kuwait City in November last year.

‘Sad Sunil is retiring’

Stimac said he was feeling said as Chhetri will be retiring after the match but added he might still give the ace striker one “last call” to play for India.

“Of course as a coach I’m sad that Sunil is leaving us. I’m still not sure if I’m going to send him another call, if I feel we need him and he plays well for Bengaluru FC. I’m still thinking about it,” he said in a lighter vein.

Gurpreet in starting XI

Seniormost goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had a sloppy outing against Afghanistan — to whom India suffered a shock 1-2 loss — and his foul gave the opponents the winning penalty.

But Stimac backed Gurpreet and named him ahead of Amrinder Singh and Vishal Kaith in the playing XI against Kuwait.

“Gurpreet is starting the game tomorrow. I don’t question at this level and at such a high important level my goalkeeper who is number 1.

“I hope he will prove himself again tomorrow and how crucial he is for the national team. Yes, he didn’t do well but that doesn’t mean as a coach I will go with radical changes between the post because experience at international level is a huge factor,” he said.

Stimac also said that he might consider giving “minutes” to exciting I-League players David Lalhlansanga and Edmund Lalrindika on Thursday.

India have some exciting youngsters from I-League with the likes of David of the triumphant Mohammedan Sporting and Edmund Lalrindika of Inter Kashi.

It will be a first in five years for an I-League player to make debut in national jersey if they make the cut.

“They are great assets for the Indian football both of them have adapted to the squad, to the drills, to the environments in a very, very good way. They became essential part of 25-27 squad. They will be competing for their minutes,” Stimac said.

The Croat reiterated that India’s poor outings in the recent World Cup qualifiers and Asian Cup was mostly due to “terrifying performances” by the players from the bench and urged them to step up this time.

“All of us have noticed since the Kuwait win that we didn’t have any positive impact from any player coming from the bench. That was terrifying for me as a coach,” Stimac said.

“I’ve pointed out to the boys because many times the bench players are more important than those who start the games.”

Wish India get more players like Chhetri: Kuwait coach

Kuwait head coach Rui Bento said they are expecting tough challenge from India, but stressed that they have come out with better preparation from their loss in the last match.

“Football is an ongoing process and now we are better than before. So expect better performance to win the game. We are confident about our players.”

On retiring Chhetri, he said: “I know him very well, a historical player for Indian football. All the best to him.

“Football needs players like him. It’s not for good Indian football. Maybe in future you will have more players like Chhetri.”


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