It’s a theme that keeps popping up in Bhubaneswar. India are a team.
Carlos Queiroz, manager of Qatar, was keen to drive home that point. He’s one of those best placed to answer it, having overseen Iran’s 3-0 win over India in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. India were a “group of good players” then but “are a team” now, according to Queiroz.
It’s doubly reinforced when watching India train; this isn’t just a collection of India’s best players, there’s genuine camaraderie in the side. The inside jokes, the high level of “healthy competition” as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu described it, are very apparent as Team India train on the pitch-perfect surface of the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, under the evening lights.
As his wards are put through their paces, Stimac prowls around – but he isn’t hunting for prey. Udanta Singh gets an arm around him as the Croatian strolls with him ahead of training. Manvir Singh, scorer of India’s winning goal in their crucial game over Kuwait a few days back, is nowhere to be seen – apparently out with injury. This could be Udanta’s moment to shine, replacing Manvir in the side.
“I never give up on any player”, said Stimac in his pre-match press conference. Given Udanta’s almost decade-long status as someone yet to fulfill his outstanding potential, the Croatian might be counting on the 27-year-old to spark something new.
The arm has now gone from Udanta’s shoulder as Stimac appears to be having a serious conversation with the winger.
“I’m there to tell them what needs to be changed or done to make it right and to help them bounce back. I will use all elements and tools to help my players become better human beings, become better players. If we have people inside our dressing room, who only think and care about themselves, then we are not great people. We need everyone committed and aware that with his presence, he needs to make others better.”
The need to make others better – there’s that theme of being a ‘team’ again.
It’s the bedrock of India’s recent success and Stimac agrees. It almost feels as if this is a club team, who live, train and eat with each other every day and not players from rival clubs that they are. To his credit, Stimac has fostered an environment where everyone pulls together, with one aim. Never one to shy away from taking credit, his first instinct after overseeing India’s first away win in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in 22 years was to pay tribute to his strength and conditioning coach, Luka Radman.
While the country celebrated a historic win against Kuwait, the team mourned in silence for one of our own. Our strength and conditioning coach Luka Radman lost his father the same morning, but decided to stay with us in this crucial time. pic.twitter.com/KGHBDLJW1d
– Igor Štimac (@stimac_igor) November 18, 2023
The silver-haired Radman lost his father but chose to stay back and help Team India. And he strolls over to a waiting Stimac and Sunil Chhetri, where the trio engage in another long conversation. Three very important cogs of India’s recent success – Stimac with his motivational and tactical nous, Radman ensuring this batch of Indian players can go full tilt for 100 minutes and Chhetri the one to provide the magic when required.
It seems too perfect, and against the might of Qatar, a team that put eight past Afghanistan days ago, the positivity around India might come undone. Yet, the air of quiet confidence – right from Stimac and Gurpreet strolling into the press conference to the vibe around the Kalinga stadium as they trained – Team India aren’t here to sit back and soak pressure as underdogs.
As underdogs, that’s what they did in the 0-0 draw against Qatar in 2019 was hailed as one of India’s best-ever results (justifiably so, since that was the only time Qatar dropped points that year) – yet it came early in Stimac’s reign with a side that was not as much of a team as this one. This vintage has it within itself to surprise people, and it’s fed into the watching journalists as well. The questions aimed at Qatar spoke of India’s threat, while those to Stimac were mostly those seeking a positive result.
“Qatar is out of our league” proclaimed Stimac in his press conference, and while he was referring to six games in a group, on the night, all it takes is one game together. As a team.
It’s no wonder that Bhubaneswar is ready to fill the Kalinga Stadium entirely with a sold-out crowd (and fans still hanging around the gates late at night hoping to score a few tickets). This is a team worth watching. Not just a group of good players.