Will India have to go the Mancini Distance to find a new striker?


Disclaimer: We aren’t asking Sunil Chhetri to retire.

The International Break has come to an end. Europe was indulged in the Euro Qualifiers, Africa was involved with the CONCACAF Nations League while teams from other continents were spending their time playing friendly games. The Indian National Team stirred up a fantastic break as we made a significant gain in the rankings.

But, what is Roberto Mancini doing here on IFTWC?

Roberto Mancini (left) with the Euro title and Chiellini
Roberto Mancini (left) with Euro Trophy and Georgio Chiellini

We all know and acknowledge the legendary act of how Roberto Mancini turned the fate of the Italian National Team and won the Euros in 2021 after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. As if the Italian Renaissance happened once again. They failed to qualify for the World Cup once again but the Italian shouldn’t be discredited from his achievements.

An unbeaten run of 37 games is no small feat. But for Mancini to turn it around, he set up a few new principles to form a formidable squad. One of them was to explore all the possibilities to find new players. Unlike previous managers, he focused on clubs like Sassuolo as much as Juventus.

Since his appointment in 2018, Mancini has called up as many as a staggering 102 players in his national squad. Giving out chances to this many players is considered an idealistic approach only when you have a system in place and your team is delivering. One of the primary benefits of doing this is that you have a replacement ready when a certain player gets injured or calls it a day.

In his most recent squad, Mancini called up a striker who has never set foot in Italy – Mario Retegui. In his defense, he is Argentine by birth but they have passed the opportunity of having him in the national team. Hence, he is now an Italy player. Questions were asked around him but he delivered with two goals in two games. This debut started a case study in itself – Why did the Italy coach scout his way to the Argentina Primera Division to find a striker?

Here is the reason. In his review of Italy’s successive World Cup Qualification failure, FootballItalia’s Lorenzo Bettoni pointed out that the single biggest mistake from the coach’s side was not finding an alternative to Lazio’s Ciro Immobile. Mancini’s preferred strike backup the previous year was West Ham’s Gianluca Scamacca but a lot of things haven’t been in his favor. Andrea Belloti and Giacomo Raspadori may sound like good options but both of them have lacked minutes at Roma and Napoli respectively.

A lot of it sounds familiar if Igor Stimac and Indian Football is taken into context. The only trustworthy #9 option for the Croat is Sunil Chhetri. The other options barely get useful minutes – something that frustrates Stimac. Since his appointment in 2019, he has called up a total of 82 footballers to his national camp. Credit where it’s due, India may be a populous country but it doesn’t have the footballing luxury of Italy. 82 players in less than four years is a gorgeous number. A problem, however, remains..

Will India have to go the Mancini Distance to find a new striker? igor stimac aiff 16555735034x3 1
Igor Stimac has called up a total of 82 players to his national camp [AIFF]

At the international level, Sunil Chhetri is more likely to carry on for a few more years. A professional like him will be happy to be on the bench for Bengaluru FC if Simon Grayson or any other coach thinks that he is better as a sub, especially for a prodigy like Siva Sakti. Bengaluru FC’s highest goal scorer this season was unlucky to not make his national team debut in Manipur because of his face injury sustained in the ISL final. Manvir Singh, considering his time since leaving FC Goa, shouldn’t be counted as a striker anymore. As things stand, Ishan Pandita is the only other #9 Stimac has at his disposal.

Off those 82 players, 10 have been out-and-out strikers (excluding Siva, who didn’t actually make it to the camp). Those names range from Sumeet Passi and Balwant Singh to VP Suhair and Manvir Singh. The camp performances are with the coaches. To assess further, league performances matter. But in the league, some struggled for game time, some were transformed while some were lost in the way. At the moment, it is all down to the former Lorca striker Ishan Pandita.

Pandita, however, could be viewed as Stimac’s Scamacca. In September last year, Mancini hit out at David Moyes for not using his boy properly. In his most recent press conference, Stimac emphasized how the use of overseas players is “curtailing” Pandita’s career. Coaches, in these situations, are ought to vent out their feelings. After all, #9 is a sensible position in international football. If not agreed, ask superpowers like Spain how life has been.

Another very surprising inclusion lately in the Italian squad is Simone Pafundi. The Udinese player had roughly 20 Serie A minutes when he was handed his international debut against Albania in November. But the main criteria for him to be part of that squad was being instrumental for Italy U-17, alongside his ability to create from the wings. Simone is not exactly a striker, but you get the point.

Will India have to go the Mancini Distance to find a new striker? IMG 20230402 001825
Gurkirat Singh has netted 11 goals in 8 games for India U-20 [AIFF]

The last twelve months have been fruitful for the Men’s U-17 and U-20 sides. Under Bibiano Fernandes, India U-20 lifted the SAFF U-20 Championship. Striker Gurkirat Singh won the Golden Boot as well as the MVP Award. In 2019, he was the joint top scorer of the SAFF U-18 tournament which was held in 2019. The Mumbai City FC forward has 11 goals in 8 appearances for the India U-20 side. This includes the timely hattrick against Bangladesh in the SAFF final. The side didn’t qualify for the Asian Cup but Gurkirat, with three goals in three games, was again the biggest standout performer of the campaign.

Will India have to go the Mancini Distance to find a new striker? IMG 20230402 001854
Thanglalsoun Gangte is amongst the brightest U-17 talents in India [AIFF]

In June, India U-17 will compete for Asian glory. Reaching the semifinals of which, Bibiano’s boys will become the first-ever Indian side to qualify for a FIFA tournament on merit. In the qualifying campaign, Sudeva player Thanglalsoun Gangte emerged as the side’s top scorer with 5 goals to his name. In the SAFF U-17 Championship, he was the joint-top scorer in India’s victory campaign.

These stats may sound attractive. But to convince Igor, one needs to earn minutes in the Super League. The National team coach has never called up a player from I-League or age groups to his national camp. In 2020-21, TRAU FC’s Bidyashagar Singh won the golden boot with 12 goals – becoming only the fourth Indian player to ever win it in I-League/NFL. But fast forward two seasons, the striker only has 50 ISL minutes to his name, averaging less than six minutes per appearance. Did he ever get the call-up? No. Was his form utilized? Absolutely Not.

Another forward, though not a #9, has been a stellar performer for the junior National teams – Himanshu Jangra. He is one of those players whose name made rounds even before a major debut. The Colaco-esque player could be beneficial in carrying the ball into the penalty box. Such attributes are a bit uncommon in Indian players. Since we have it, we can fast-track them into the senior national team. But then again, he doesn’t tick the ISL minutes box.

It’s a nationwide problem, the way Indian strikers struggle for minutes, especially the younger ones of them. Stimac’s time will come to an end after the Asian Cup, but he still has a lot of time. One can hope that whoever the next coach is, he understands this particular problem and abolishes the criteria to go the distance!

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Chetan Anand
Chetan Anand
Radars Football, Cricket and Motorsports

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