In an online press conference, Igor Stimac paused before betraying a slight smile. Then the head coach of the Indian men’s football team revealed a statistic that he dubbed “a huge achievement.”

“Only in June, we’re getting to play nine games. And in the past 12 months we played just eight,” he said.

Getting international matches for the Indian team has not been a straightforward task, especially after the brief suspension from Fifa the country was handed last year. But as the team begins its preparation for the AFC Asian Cup that takes place in January 2024, Stimac was satisfied by the fact that there will be a decent number of matches under the belt before the team makes the journey to Qatar for the continental event.

First on the agenda though, is the four-nation Intercontinental Cup that begins on June 9 at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. India will begin their campaign against Mongolia, before taking on Vanuatu on June 12, and then the final group match against the higher-ranked (99) Lebanon. India are currently ranked 101.

“We have many tournaments to play, the Intercontinental Cup, the SAFF Cup… then there’s the King’s Cup (in Thailand) in September, followed by the Merdika Cup (in Malaysia) in October,” said Stimac.

“And in November we start with the World Cup qualifiers. It’s a huge achievement (to get these many matches).”

In June alone, India is guaranteed at least six matches – three each in the group stages of the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Cup in Bengaluru. India is placed in Group A with Kuwait, Nepal and Pakistan in the latter competition that starts on June 21. Getting to the final in both events will make it nine matches.

India captain Sunil Chhetri is already relishing the thought of getting that much game time.

“The more number of games we play, the better for us,” Chhetri said in a virtual press conference last month.

“And the more games we play against better opponents, that’s much better for us. Holistically, what we can see is that we will have a decent amount of games before the Asian Cup. That’s a good thing.

“When we play for our clubs, the way we play and the nature is different. The composition of the team is different. Suddenly when we come to the national team we have to adjust differently. So, the more days and training we get, we acclimatize to each other’s talent. That’s why the more number of games we get is better for us.”

Guaranteed matches for India in June

Competition Opponent (rank)
Intercontinental Cup
Mongolia (183)
June 9
Intercontinental Cup
Vanuatu (164)
June 12
Intercontinental Cup
Lebanon (99)
June 15
Pakistan (195)
June 21
Nepal (174)
June 24
Kuwait (143)
June 27
All India matches start at 19:30 hrs IST

Talismanic Chhetri

The 38-year-old has been a lynchpin for the national team since he made his international debut in 2005. He’s the most capped player for the national team with 133 appearances, and 85 international goals.

Though he may be in the later stages of his career, his importance to the team has not diminished. And Stimac has hailed the skipper for ensuring a high standard of fitness.

“Sunil has always been a role model and leader in every sense for the boys,” said the Croatian coach.

“But he’s not only talking, he’s showing it with his best results. Once again, in this camp he was in the top 5 best results in all the tests we executed. That’s the best way of leading the team and showing them how much can be done – never mind the age, the month or the year. Let alone what he speaks, what he does on the pitch and how he works, that’s the most important thing.”

Maintaining high fitness levels though hasn’t been difficult for Chhetri.

“For me it’s easy,” he said.

“The difficult part is to stay motivated. To stay physically fit is the easiest part. Telling your mind that you have to get up and do it everyday is difficult. Do not eat what you don’t have to eat, train hard, sleep early, drink a lot of water… done.”

Indian football: Sunil Chhetri – ‘My hunger to score is the same as it has always been’

Chhetri is highly likely to be a key figure for the Indian team in the upcoming matches. But Stimac warned that good performances in June itself doesn’t guarantee a spot in the team that will play the Asian Cup in Qatar.

“For that, it’ll depend on December preparation and how much time we get there,” he added.

“This is the kind of sport where you have to deal with injury, changes in form… who will be ready, the best performing players in December. It has nothing to do with what we are doing now.”

There has been talk within the All India Football Federation about how much time Stimac will get for the final preparation camp in December, scheduled during the course of the Indian Super League season.

“Discussions were there, some thoughts about 12-14 days for the preparation camp. But no final decision,” the coach added.

For now, the only certainty is the vast number of matches they will get to play in June. A welcome and important change from what it’s been in the past 12 months.

Indian squad for the Intercontinental Cup

Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh

Defenders: Subhasish Bose, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Anwar Ali, Akash Mishra, Mehtab Singh, Rahul Bheke

Midfielders: Liston Colaco, Ashique Kuruniyan, Rohit Kumar, Udanta Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Naorem Mahesh Singh, Nikhil Poojary, Jeakson Singh, Sahal Abdul Samad, Lalengmawia Ralte, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Rowllin Borges, Nandha Kumar

Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Rahim Ali, Ishan Pandita.

The matches will be broadcast live on the Star Sports Network and will be streamed live on Disney+Hotstar and Jio TV