By Sudipto Ganguly
MUMBAI (Reuters) – India’s new soccer coach Igor Stimac is starting to instill the belief in his players that qualifying for a maiden World Cup finals is not a pipedream but a genuine target, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has told Reuters.
Former Croatia defender Stimac was appointed coach on a two-year contract last month after Englishman Stephen Constantine walked away from the job in the wake of the team’s exit from the group stages of the Asian Cup.
India has 325 times more people than Stimac’s home country but unlike the 2018 World Cup finalists, their national team have never ventured to the showpiece of the international game and are currently sitting 101st in the FIFA rankings.
Stimac was part of the Croatia team that sensationally reached the semi-finals of the World Cup at the first attempt in 1998 and he is looking to his India squad to similarly buck the odds in Asian qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
“I think his dream is to make us have a shot at qualifying for the World Cup because he believes that we can make it and that belief has rubbed off on all of the players,” Sandhu said in an interview.
“He wants to create competition for every position in the team which I believe he already has.
“Coach Stimac has been amazing so far, he knows what he wants from the team and asks for it. He believes in us and wants to show how to get to next level by playing good football using everything a player has at his disposal.”
India will not know their opponents until the draw for the World Cup qualifiers takes place in Kuala Lumpur on July 17.
The biggest achievement on Stimac’s coaching resume is helping Croatia qualify for the 2014 World Cup and his last assignment was with Al-Shahania Club in Qatar.
India lost 3-1 to the might of Curacao in the 51-year-old’s his first match in charge at the King’s Cup but bounced back to beat Thailand 1-0 in their next fixture.
Sandhu said Constantine, who led India to the expanded Asian Cup in January after a gap of eight years and got them into the FIFA top 100 for a while last year, had built some solid foundations.
“The time under coach Constantine was fruitful, we jumped in rankings and qualified for the Asian Cup,” Sandhu added.
“I think most important thing that we gained from those years was respect from other Asian countries.”
Sandhu was signed by sportswear firm Puma this month as an ambassador after becoming the first Indian to play for a top-tier European club.
India players like Mohammad Salim, Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri had previously plyed their trade in Europe but their stints were all for lower league sides.
Sandhu, who stands 6ft 6in-tall (1.98m), did it the hard way and had to wait five months from signing to make his debut for Stabek FC in a Norwegian Cup tie against Runar in 2015.
He then made his league debut the following season before getting the taste of European continental competition in the Europa League — another first for an Indian.
The 27-year-old returned to India in 2017 and joined the Bengaluru FC club, who won the 2018 Indian Super Cup and the last Indian Super League title.
“The journey from India to Europe and back to India has been unbelievable,” the goalkeeper said.
“I never thought I would get a chance to play abroad. I am glad I stuck it out and stayed there because it helped me immensely.
“Coming to India and then winning two trophies in two years has been something I could only dream of.”
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Nick Mulvenney)