Indian men’s football team head coach Igor Stimac and his Iraq counterpart, Jesus Casas, have known each other for more than 30 years. Casas, six years Stimac’s junior, was a youth team player for Spanish side Cadiz CF, where Stimac played for two seasons between 1992 and 1994. On Thursday, September 7, 2023, they will be in opposite dugouts for the first semi-final of the 49th King’s Cup 2023 at the 700th Anniversary Stadium in Chiang Mai.
Before the pre-match press conference on Wednesday, the two greeted each other with smiling faces, shared a tight hug, and exchanged pleasantries in Spanish, before settling down in their seats to answer questions.
“First of all, I’m very happy to be seated here with an old friend from my playing days in Spain,” began Stimac. “And I hope both teams and coaches are going to enjoy the game. I hope that we’re going to give everything on the pitch to do something good against a strong side like Iraq, who are Arabian Gulf Cup champions. After beating Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they are one of the clear favorites in the upcoming Asian Cup. So it’s going to be very difficult for us, but I hope our boys will enjoy the game.”
Despite Iraq being ranked 29 places above India in the FIFA Rankings, Casas’ comments on the Blue Tigers were equally respectful. He said, “India are not easy. We have watched their matches. They are a very good team, very organized. They know a lot of ways to attack. They can play short ball and long ball. But our target is to win this tournament and prepare for the World Cup qualifiers.”
The Evolution of the Blue Tigers
The 2019 edition of the King’s Cup was Stimac’s debut tournament with India as they beat hosts Thailand for bronze. The Croatian, who is celebrating his 56th birthday on Wednesday, believes the Blue Tigers are a much more mature bunch now and the years gone by have taught them well.
“It’s been four years since the last time we participated here. It was a really great experience for our young team at the beginning of our work. We are four years older now. We have a clearer picture about our capacities and possibilities, and what India can do and achieve,” said Stimac.
India will be without their star performer, Sunil Chhetri, with 92 international goals to his credit, but the Blue Tigers will certainly be no pushovers against one of the traditional powerhouses of Asian football.
Rising Star: Lallianzuala Chhangte
There’s hardly a better example of a developed player over the last four years than Lallianzuala Chhangte. The winger, who made only his third start for India against Curaçao in the 2019 King’s Cup semi-final, is now at the peak of his national team career, scoring in the final of both the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship this year. He was also named the 2022-23 AIFF Player of the Year.
Sharing the mood in the Indian camp, Chhangte said, “The team atmosphere right now is very well. We just had beautiful success over the last few months, and I hope we continue that momentum. But I think this will be the real test because we are playing away from home and playing against one of the best countries in Asia.
“The coach has created a great environment inside the team on and off the pitch. It’s important to put what we learn in training into the match. We are not just here to participate but to win. We are approaching this tournament seriously. Our first match against Iraq is going to be very difficult. I hope we can come up with a positive result. We are ready for the challenge,” added the 2022-23 AIFF Player of the Year.
Iraq have played a lot of friendly matches against teams from different confederations over the past year. Their most recent fixture was a 0-1 defeat to 17th-ranked Colombia in Valencia. Casas’ side have also locked horns against Russia, Mexico, and Ecuador, and won the Arabian Gulf Cup as hosts in January.
As far as India’s last meeting with Iraq is concerned, it was back in 2010 in a friendly in the UAE. Iraq, who were reigning Asian Cup champions at that time, ran out 2-0 winners against Bob Houghton’s India.
The Battle Ahead
Thursday’s match kicks off at 16:00 IST, and India will line up hoping to bag their first-ever win over Iraq. Should the scores be level after 90 minutes, there will be no extra time and the winner will be decided on penalties. Hosts Thailand will face Lebanon in the second semi-final at 19:00 IST. The winners will contest the final on September 10, while the losing teams will play for bronze on the same day.