What India can learn from the bravery of Japan and Saudi Arabia

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How many Canadian players have you heard of? Most people might have heard of him – Alphonso Davies, who plays for Bayern Munich. But they showed that football, even if you are playing against the second best team in the world, is not about individuals. It’s more about the team.

The high press, the fitness, the running, the joy with which they expressed themselves on the pitch – it was impressive to watch. If only their finish was better. God only knows how Belgium won this match.

The first round of fixtures are over and, as seen at every World Cup, there have been a few surprises along the way. Nothing bigger than Argentina losing to Saudi Arabia and Germany losing to Japan.

Germany and Argentina were similar, but different. Germany had chances but couldn’t kill the game. But Argentina, they didn’t look good. The tactic we had seen from them in their last five games – the long balls went in, instead of their usual short passes and it didn’t work. It was as if Argentina had disappeared.

It’s not just Germany and Argentina that have done something wrong. The gap between the teams in international football has definitely narrowed. The refereeing is different, the level of play is different, the data on which the teams rely is different. You can prepare better.

Saudi Arabia and Japan have worked very hard for this moment and they have worked hard in very different ways. Saudi Arabia, with a team made up entirely of national players, and Japan, with a team loaded with players who play in Europe. But they were both brave when needed.

Lessons for India?

Before wondering if India can make a Saudi, consider what the Saudis have done to reform their system. There is a great passion for the sport, the government invests huge sums in the sport, they bring the best international players into the Pro League and the salaries their footballers receive are among the best in the industry.

For India, doing all this will take time, but the important thing is the mindset. You have to be positive and always go out to win. Do it first then make footballers play more football. Then you add more power, muscle, and strength.

At the next World Cup we will have 48 teams (compared to 32 in 2022) and from the start that has been our goal. That’s why from the start of my stint, we pushed the youngsters, giving experience to as many people as possible, letting them mature because with places from Asia increasing to 9, we have a more realistic chance.

But we need a longer season. Without it, it won’t happen. It’s hard to compete when you don’t play enough. More matches means experience, competitive football, strength, decision making, situational awareness, muscle quality and much more getting better. There are some things you can’t learn in practice. You have to do this every week in matches with someone shooting at you. It all starts from there. It is the base on which you build.

Then Indian players have to challenge each other in different leagues. But you can’t just go, you need to get invited and be invited, you need more matches to build yourself. But players need to get out of their comfort zone which is the ISL and be ambitious. The road to success is paved with difficulties.

Takeaways from the first round of matches

I expected more from Africa, but none of the teams seem to make it past the group stage. The Asian sides were a nice surprise, perhaps showing that the climate and the welcome suit them. But Qatar, given how much they have invested in the game, have been disappointing. Not because they lost but because of how they lost. No disrespect to Ecuador, but the hosts needed to show more.

But we also saw plenty of boring games, as expected. The teams play football safely, familiarize themselves with the conditions and show no intention of winning. France, however, shrugged off their troubles and delivered a game that once again made them their favourites.

Antoine Griezmann was so important to them. He connects the lines for them and makes them work. In a way France are like Brazil, so many world class players, speed on the flanks and even when Australia scored first they just ignored…like it was nothing. When they played, everything seemed so easy.

All in all, this sets us up for a very exciting second week. Will we see some of the biggest teams resurrect their chances or will they meet their fate?

— Igor Stimac is the coach of the Indian men’s football team. He was a member of the Croatia squad that finished third in the 1998 World Cup

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