Injuries in football are common. So are their dire consequences on results for teams.
When Anwar Ali, Mohun Bagan Super Giant and the Indian National team’s center-back, was stretchered off the field after an ankle injury during an AFC Cup game last month, it meant that the Blue Tigers would be without him for the next round of FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers.
As a result, head coach Igor Stimac turned to Rahul Bheke, the captain of the Mumbai City FC team nicknamed ‘Bhekenbauer’, after Germany’s legendary defender Franz Beckenbauer, for his exploits in the back line.
Bheke played his part in forming an astute Indian defense as the Blue Tigers secured a clean sheet and a World Cup qualifiying win on foreign soil for the first time in 22 years as India beat Kuwait 1-0.
Bheke believes one of the factors for his excellence is head coach Stimac’s suggestions, who himself was a centre-back of the 1998 FIFA World Cup Croatian team which finished third.
“He, himself being a defender, keeps guiding us, in terms of positioning and decision-making. And there is Mahesh (Gawli) sir there with him, who has also been a defender. So, Mahesh sir worked a lot on improving our defence,” Bheke told Sportstar.
Stimac joined the national team in 2019 and took two years to secure a trophy.
However, his graph has only risen since. He won three trophies in 2023 – the Tri-Nations Series, Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship – and helped the under-23 men’s side reach the round of 16 at the Asian Games after 13 years.
“This year, you’ll see that we have played well, have maintained ball possession and have won trophies,” Bheke said, “Somewhere, I feel the work that he has done here over the years, except during the pandemic period when there was hardly any time for preparation, is bearing fruits now.”
“The team has reached a position where players know how to approach the game (under Stimac) and perform well, keeping the ball in our control.”
India plays Qatar in the second round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers on Tuesday. The last time the two clashed, it was Bheke who was sent off. India has climbed three spots since that game and the gap between the two countries has also narrowed (47 to 41).
Bheke, however, feels the primary focus of the team would be the AFC Asian Cup.
“The King’s Cup, the Merdeka Cup or the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, to some extent, are preparations for the tournament in Qatar. And the stronger our opponents are, in these games, the better,” he said.