As Igor Stimac takes charge of the national team perhaps his biggest challenge is to identify a reliable goal scorer for both the short and long term.
IM Vijayan re-started what Neville D’Souza had started in the 1950s, and that trend was then passed on to Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri, in parallel trajectories of time and conditions. It has all worked out smoothly until now for the Blue Tigers – the side has always had someone to look up to to end moves, to finish things, to put the ball in the back of the net.
The trend looks set to hit a roadblock and the view beyond the current #11 is blurry. Jeje Lalpekhlua doesn’t inspire ball-playing of similar ability and Balwant Singh, at 32, has lost yards of pace that made him a menace during his time at Churchill Brothers in 2013-14. Let’s take a look at the queue behind.
Manvir Singh has made a lot of appearances for the national team, both at the senior and U-23 level. The FC Goa striker hasn’t taken the chances by the scruff of their neck and has failed to make a long-lasting statement. Alongside him, Daniel Lalhlimpuia has played a few times, but he has recently had a forgettable season at Delhi Dynamos.
Daniel hasn’t scored for the national team since his U-20 days and his drought is down to his playing style. He had some decent outings for Bengaluru FC in the past, but his transfer to the capital hasn’t really shaken up the world for him – instead pushing him down the pecking order. Manvir, too, is more of a predator, something Lalpekhlua, with two dozen international goals, already provides to the national side.
It would be criminally incorrect to say that Vijayan and Bhutia were all-round creators and developers like Chhetri is today, but at least the former duo participated in the build-up play more than most Indian strikers are, at the club level and at the international level, whoever gets a chance, currently.
Also in the queue (probably) is Justin, the East Bengal striker who has scored 11 goals in 26 outings for the club already, but had been overlooked by Stephen Constantine, falling in line with the cold shoulder given to the I-league for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 and to its build-up. Liston Colaco is still raw for the project, but should’ve been tried at the AFC U-23 Championship. Rohit Danu, too, looks too far from representing the national team anytime soon. What until then?
Manvir has been compared to Robin Singh in several quarters and that’s not a kind juxtaposition to be in. Daniel has been tried and has clearly failed. The less discussed about Aniket Jadhav and Rahim Ali, the better. They can, at their best, be withdrawn forwards that operate from the wing and do not inspire a lot of confidence in front of goal. Hitesh Sharma, at ATK, has not matched expectations, let alone exceed them. In his defence, the player has been mostly played out of position.
Why has the line dried up at the top of the pitch, when India practically has a lot of options at every other position?
Most Indian clubs have traditionally anointed the goalscoring responsibilities to foreigners, and that has been stagnating the inflow of strikers. Players like Hitesh, Thongkhosiem Haokip, Seiminlen Doungel and others that were on the brink of breaking out and showed promise never made the position their own because they were not playing in their position for their respective clubs regularly.
India will not have a goalscoring forward, influential at the level of what a Sunil Chhetri or a Bhaichung has been and was and the clubs have only themselves to blame. With Igor Stimac in the hotseat, it will be interesting to see how an obvious European touch (in sync with Isac Doru) can change things for India in the long run. Or will it?