Sunil Chhetri is irreplaceable: Igor Stimac

Unnikrishnan G

New Delhi, December 7: Describing Sunil Chhetri as 'once-in-a-decade' player, Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac said he does not see any one replacing the talismanic captain in the next five years. Stimac said a team effort will be needed to "replace" Chhetri once he decides to hang his boots.

"Honestly, the question (of what next after Chhetri?) irritates me. We have Sunil in the team -- that happens once in every decade or two. But still everyone keeps asking 'when is he leaving or what next once he leaves?' Let him enjoy his game. Why are we putting pressure on him?" Stimac wondered.

"He has enough years left in him, he is enjoying his game, he is still scoring goals. As for what we will do once he leaves, we need to replace him as a team, as a group. It's not about an individual player. It has to be a team effort because players like him, it's very difficult to replace. We cannot see anyone now, or in five years, replacing him. It has to be a team effort."

Talking about 35-year-old Chhetri's influence in the team, Stimac said, "His influence is amazing, but he is a guy who never crosses the line. That is very important for a coach.

"He is very positive and tries to teach the young players how not to waste their time. Time goes by quickly and he knows that he could have done better himself if he had not wasted some of his years," he said in a Facebook Live Question and Answer session.

India's chances of making it to the 2022 World Cup are over but Stimac is looking forward to doing well in the remaining three matches of the second round of the qualifiers. He said the team will play a good number of matches in Europe next year.

"Once the ISL is over, we will have a national team camp in March before the Qatar game and we will have another friendly match. After that, before the camp in June, we are taking the team to Europe for six to seven weeks, where we will play 10 games. The players will have more than 40 games this year. We are working hard on that," said the Croatian.

On what went wrong in the qualifiers, he said, "We had a great few games. We had some very difficult games. I consider the games where we are dubbed favourites the most difficult. And you are still not ready to take that part and do it properly.

"But what I can say is India have become a very difficult team to beat, which was not happening before. We played five games and conceded only five goals - a big improvement from the last one where we conceded 18," said the former defender who was a part of the bronze winning Croatian team in the 1998 World Cup.

"We are collectively not happy to not have won against Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but things will change." Stimac said he would want to develop a team which will mature and ensure India become a strong contender to qualify for the 2026 World Cup.

"It cannot be a dream anymore, it needs to become a very realistic hope. We are not far away from that. We are working on a few things but once they bear fruit, it will help us to develop much quicker."

He also talked about some young players playing in the ISL, who are national team material in future. "For example, Kerala Blasters FC's Jeakson Singh. His age is great, he is doing well, I follow his games. He needs to keep improving, pushing himself and he can be part of the senior national team. That's the only thing he needs to keep doing."

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