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Igor Stimac’s reign as India coach begins with stiff test at King’s Cup

Jaydeep Basu



India will begin their King's Cup campaign against Curacao on June 5.

New Delhi: India have often lost by big margins in international football, the worst being the 10-1 defeat against Yugoslavia in 1952 Olympics.

But what happened in 1981 King’s Cup in Bangkok was simply unacceptable – India were hammered by a South Korean army side 6-0.

So poor was India’s performance in the four-team group that it took the organisers 38 years to invite them to play the King’s Cup once again.

Prasanta Banerjee, a member of the 1981 side and now a part of AIFF technical committee, puts the blame on the then coaching staff.

“Since the 1982 Asian Games was just a year away, our chief coach PK Banerjee decided to bring in few fresh faces in the playing eleven. The experiment proved disastrous,” said Banerjee.

Skipper Bhaskar Ganguly was not played under the bar. Worst hit was the defence. Manoranjan Bhattacharya did not travel with the team because of injury. The other central defender, GS Parmar was benched.

Banerjee doesn’t “remember” who took their places. “It cost us dear”, was all the legendary midfielder had to say.

The King’s Cup will be Igor Stimac’s first test as the new India coach and Sunil Chhetri will be leading the attack.

Needless to say faithful fans of the King’s Cup, which started in 1969, won’t have many good things to say about the last time they watched India in action.

But there are reasons to believe the fans would watch a completely different India when Igor Stimac’s boys start their campaign against Caribbean nation Curacao at the Chang Arena Stadium in Buriram on Wednesday.

If the reports are to be believed, then Curacao, 82 in the FIFA ranking, are a formidable side having footballers, who play for top European clubs.

They will be led by Everton star Cuco Martina. Former Aston Villa player Leandro Bacuna is also in the squad. The opening match is not going to be easy before India aspire to play the winners of Thailand and Vietnam.

Indian fans are bubbling with enthusiasm, especially after Stimac has taken over. He has also brought in goalkeepers’ coach Tomislav Rogic and fitness coach Luka Radnan with him.

All three are believed to have done commendable jobs in the camp. But then, it remains to be seen what is Stimac’s actual plan with the team.

Like any other European coach, the Croatian does not compromise on fitness. Sources said he was not too satisfied with the fitness level of some footballers. He made them work harder in the national camp.

The coach was probably keen to hand over young Anwar Ali his senior team debut but the under-17 World Cup defender is out with an injury.

Young Nishu Kumar’s last- minute hamstring pull is yet another jolt to the defence. To add to it, there will be no Jeje Lalpekhlua in the striking line.

It remains to be seen how Balwant Singh, Farukh Chaudhary and Manvir Singh manages to assist Sunil Chhetri upfront.

Members of the Indian Team arrive in Buriram, Thailand, for the King’s Cup.

With players like Adil Khan, Rahul Bheke, Brandon Fernandes, Michael Soosairaj waiting in the wings, there is a good chance that a new-look India might be seen in the King’s Cup, where India will get the chance to play two matches.

However, it depends upon how much changes Stimac wants to make in his first tournament as the coach. He has few options since both matches in Thailand would essentially be knock-out encounters.

For the moment, India can forget about what happened in 1981. Instead they can take satisfaction from the fact that Gurdev Singh’s boys played spirited football when India were first invited to play the King’s Cup in 1977.

In the round robin tournament involving six teams, India finished third. India won two matches against Singapore and Indonesia and drew against hosts Thailand and mighty South Korea.

The only match they lost was against Malaysia and finished with six points. The team was coached by the ever-smiling Sahu Mewalal, the legendary striker, who scored India’s match-winner against Iran in the 1951 Asian Games final.