When Sunil Chhetri, a 39-year-old forward, outweighs every national team forward in terms of fitness and goal-poaching, it is an obvious problem Igor Stimac and his team would like to think ahead about.
It is not rocket science to figure out the overdependence of the team on Chhetri for goals. The Blue Tigers rode on his winner against Vanuatu in the Intercontinental Cup, and he was the Golden Boot and Golden Ball winner in the SAFF Championships.
Chhetri is the No. 9. But for how long?
Last season, the Bengaluru FC captain initially fell off the pecking order of the starting squad under Simon Grayson, the head coach of the Indian Super League (ISL) side.
But his presence as the sole national team striker (in the starting XI) has become fait accompli primarily because no young striker has been as good as him.
The King’s Cup 2023, India’s next international game in the September FIFA window, might just provide a silver lining here.
Chhetri has requested to be left out for personal reasons, and three forwards have been named in the squad – Manvir Singh, Rahul KP and Rahim Ali, of which only Manvir and Rahim are traditional strikers.
Robin Singh, who was himself India’s go-to No. 9 once, caught up with Sportstar to discuss who might just be the solution to the problem.
“I think each striker brings something different to the game. I used to bring the physicality, and Sunil (still) brings the poacher’s instinct. Even Jeje (Lalpekhlua) brought that when he used to play,” Robin says.
“With the new batch, we can start with Ishan Pandita, he’s got the ability to make those runs behind (the defence). So, he consistently needs game time to hone his craft.”
Ishan, however, has struggled with injury problems and has been missing from action for the last two international tournaments, recuperating from a torn hamstring since June 2023.
Robin, who once forged a formidable trio with Chhetri on the right and Jeje on the left, between 2010 and 2016, quips that Manvir might just be the panacea to the conundrum of finding a leader for the national team’s attack.
“Someone that I feel, can play as a versatile striker, is Manvir,” he says.
Manvir, the former Minerva Punjab forward, recently won the Durand Cup with Mohun Bagan Super Giant – his second trophy in six months, having won the Indian Super League (ISL) title with the same club in March 2023.
“He is brilliant on the wing but as a No. 9, he just needs that supply. We have seen him score goals in every tournament that he plays,” adds Robin.
A two-way problem
The issue of not having a conventional forward, also, can be partly attributed to the way the ISL clubs operate.
In the last five years, teams who have won the league have all had their forwards as foreign players, be it Roy Krishna (for ATK) or Bartholomew Ogbeche (Mumbai City FC and then Hyderabad FC).
“In the end, it comes down to what the coach wants and also, how hard a player works to fight for that spot. So, when you say the club has to decide on the No.9 (as an Indian), it also has to be a matter of belief by the coaches,” Robin says.
“I’ve been honoured enough to play for coaches who trusted me and I made sure that I repaid that trust, from Trevor Morgan to Ashley Westwood. My job was to ensure East Bengal or Bengaluru FC wins, not put Robin Singh on the scoresheet.”
There has been some hope at the end of the tunnel, though. Sivasakthi Narayanan, the prolific 22-year-old, has been a revelation for Bengaluru FC. But the tendency to prioritise a foreigner as a No. 9 continues to be a problem for Indian football.
Siva, too, has been held back by injuries. Stimac, in a press interaction earlier, said that the forward is no more the player he was after picking up an injury in the ISL last season.
It is here that King’s Cup gets context. Beyond the banal formalities of an international friendly, it becomes the litmus test to check who can be the No. 9.
Rahim, the blue-eyed prodigy from the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, was touted as one with immense potential but has not lived up to the expectations—something he might get to change this time, in Thailand.
India plays higher-ranked Iraq (ranked 70 to India’s 99) in the semifinal and either Lebanon or the host (Thailand) in the next game.
And Robin feels this team has enough potential to win the tournament.
“I want them to be champions. I think it’s a great opportunity for the team to perform at the King’s Cup,” he says, “We can definitely beat Lebanon and Thailand. I am pretty confident about that. The questions arise on Iraq but I think the team has enough talent to go on and beat anybody across their path.”
“When I spoke to Igor, he said no position is guaranteed. If you work hard, you play for me, and that shows,” he adds.
India is scheduled to play in the Asian Games with the nucleus of this team, wherein Chhetri will return.
But in the larger scheme of things, with the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers a couple of months away, Stimac will be busy on his drawing board, looking for solutions to replace, perhaps, India’s best-ever goal scorer.