Igor Stimac keeps smiling. Even talking about some of the thorny issues that are holding Indian football back. And certainly not in the expectation of the Asian Cup, for which he hopes to remain coach of the national team.
India on Tuesday qualified for the continental championship, closing the qualifiers with an emphatic 4-0 win over Hong Kong. The smooth, high-intensity performance came as an antidote to Indian football which was reeling from multiple blows – the national team’s below-average performances, which led to a massive budget cut by the government, the appointment of administrators by the Supreme Court to run the federation which raised the possibility of a FIFA ban.
The last bit, the legal action against the AIFF and a possible FIFA sanction, had Stimac worried. So, in this context, the three victories and the qualification made him “very happy”. But he is careful not to get carried away. “I wouldn’t like to be euphoric like the fans are,” he said. “Everyone expected us to qualify, so it’s not a special achievement.”
From the cozy corner of his hotel room in Warsaw, Stimac doesn’t just want to reflect on his moment of glory, which came after “difficult and turbulent times”, and during the three years that had “more lows than highs”. But, he says, “I prefer to talk about problems instead of being silent.”
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And so Stimac, the defensive mainstay of the first golden generation of Croatian players – the group that reached the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup – goes on the offensive regarding the problems currently facing Indian football.
He talks about things he has referred to many times before – the importance of having a longer season with more matches, giving Indian players more playing time, having training camps long-term national team and to urge the government to review its policy towards PIOs playing for India.
Stimac then tackled head-on an issue whispered in football circles but not dealt with effectively: the domestic season schedule, which largely depends on the Indian Premier League, which is broadcast on the same platform as the ISL.
“Things need to be sorted out regarding the football schedule which is still being adjusted with regards to IPL and broadcast… This needs to stop if we want football to be big in India. shouldn’t depend on other things,” he says.
With IPL media rights for the next five years totaling over $6 billion, does Stimac fear this will further impact the domestic season? “India is blessed with such a popular sport as cricket, but should not be afraid of another sport becoming so popular. And to do that, they have to open the door to football. Otherwise, it won’t happen. Football shouldn’t suffer because of cricket,” says Stimac.
When asked why he talks about these issues now, three years after arriving in India, Stimac replies: “For the past three years, we weren’t able to talk too much. It was better for us to focus on work.
Stimac took over as India coach in May 2019. He seemed prepared for the job, appearing to be meticulous in his research of India’s players and appeared to have a plan. It also started well, with the team nearly upsetting Oman in the opener of the joint 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers and then holding Asian champions Qatar to a draw.
The wheels then came off. Before the three consecutive victories in Asian Cup qualifiers in the last fortnight, India had won only six of 25 matches under Stimac. “When I took the job I expected a much different situation, I expected everyone to be committed and ready to help the national team up.”
This, Stimac claims, did not always happen. He cites instances where players have sometimes arrived for their respective clubs’ national team duties an ‘hour and a half before’ a game. Many times certain key players, he claims, have come to camp injured, which has forced him to field rookies and tinker with Game 11.” he adds.
The Stimac contract expires in September. SY Quraishi, who heads the three-member board of trustees that currently runs the day-to-day affairs of the Football Federation of India, reportedly said they would look into the matter and decide what should be done. Although Stimac says he is committed to India and wants to lead the team in the Asian Cup next year, he wants a discussion on his future soon.
“It is important to understand that the football calendar is different from the normal calendar. The coaches are employed before the pre-season; their employment is in June, at the latest in July. So things have to be done earlier than he doesn’t think so,” he said. “I am very attached to the AIFF. We have completed three years of work, we have qualified for the Asian Cup and I would like to take this team and prove to everyone. world that India can do better.
His future as a coach may not yet be certain, but that hasn’t stopped Stimac from planning. He hopes a more streamlined coming season will benefit everyone, has identified his core of players which includes those who were in the Asian Cup qualifiers squad, and already plans to have four international friendlies during the two FIFA windows in September and March.
He also insists on longer camps and better communication with ISL clubs regarding releasing players and ensuring they are fully fit. “ISL will not make India fall in love with Indian football. Only the national team will,” he says.
Stimac can’t stop smiling. But that takes nothing away from his words.