Indian men’s football team gets acclimatised to Abha’s altitude ahead of WC Qualifiers clash against Afghanistan

Indian men's football team gets acclimatised to Abha's altitude ahead of WC Qualifiers clash against Afghanistan

Abha [Saudi Arabia]: Nicknamed the Bride of the Mountain, the landscape of the city of Abha is not what people would generally associate Saudi Arabia with.

Mesmerising views, fresh air, some occasional fog, but most significantly, the mild climate. The temperature was a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius on the first day of training for the Blue Tigers, who have travelled to the capital of the Asir province for the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers away match against Afghanistan, as per an All India Football Federation (AIFF).

The Blue Tigers will play the away match against Afghanistan on March 21, 2024, in Abha (March 22, 12.30 am IST). India’s home match against Afghanistan will be played at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati on March 26, 2024. India is currently tied on three points in Group A of the qualifiers, along with Kuwait, who are ahead on goal difference. The Blue Tigers defeated Kuwait (1-0) in Kuwait City in their opening match of the qualifiers, before losing to Qatar (0-3) in Bhubaneswar. Qatar currently lead the group with six points.

At 2,470 metres above sea level, it would perhaps be the first time each one of the Blue Tigers would play at such a high altitude. Acclimatisation to such conditions had to be the first order of business, and so, the national team landed in Abha as early as possible after the Indian Super League (ISL) paused for the international break. Led by skipper Sunil Chhetri, all 25 of the Blue Tigers underwent their first training session on Saturday evening.

“Since our match will kick off at 22:00 here, we have moved our daily schedule forward a few hours so that players can adjust their biorhythm accordingly,” said head coach Igor Stimac.
The kick-off has been set at late night due to Ramadan. In India, the match will start at 00:30 IST on March 22.

This international break sees the first India call-up for three players – defenders Amey Ranawade and Jay Gupta, and winger Imran Khan. Stimac opened up about their qualities which impressed him the most, making them worthy of donning the India blue.

“Amey was in our plans a long time ago before he suffered an injury. He is an intelligent young player with good ability and needs time to start picking up experience at this level,” said the coach.

About Jay, the coach said that work needs to be done on his defensive shape and positioning.

“Jay has shown interesting offensive capabilities but we still need to work a lot on his defensive shape and positioning. Imran, we believe, can add something extra to the competition for midfield positions. He has been consistent in taking shots from a distance and creating danger so we need to check how good he can be at this level,” said the coach.

Stimac believes this is the chance for the new boys to prove themselves, play consistently and keep earning future call-ups.

“I do not expect miracles from anyone. We believe in process and patient work. This will serve us to see how they respond to our demands and if we can count on them in the future,” said the Croatian.

But the doors of the national team are not open to only players in the Indian Super League. The eyes of the coaching staff are on the entire Indian footballing pyramid. Stimac spent his last week in India, watching various ISL, I-League and local matches. Sharing his observations, he said, “I watch all the games throughout the season but this time, I especially went to see some of our youngsters playing in the I-League,” said the coach.

“My dear Mahesh (Gawali) is responsible for following I-League players and I wanted to see some of the boys he mentioned to me play live like David (Lalhlansanga) and Bikash (Sagolsem) of Mohammedan (Sporting), Sourav of Gokulam (Kerala FC) and Edmund (Lalrindika) of Inter Kashi. I am happy with what I have seen and we will keep following their progress.”

“The problem is that the I-League calendar was not adjusted to FIFA windows and clubs need them now, so they will miss this opportunity of representing the U23s in Malaysia. But I am sure this will change soon,” added Stimac.

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