Igor Stimac never stops smiling. Even when we talk about some of the thorny issues holding Indian football back. And certainly not if he is looking forward to the Asian Cup, for which he hopes to stay on as head coach of the national team.
India qualified for the continental championship last Tuesday and closed the qualifiers with an emphatic 4-0 victory over Hong Kong. The free-flowing, intensive performance came as an antidote to Indian football which faltered after multiple blows – the national team’s underperformance, which led to a massive cutback by the government, the appointment of trustees by the Supreme Court to lead the federation. which raised the possibility of a FIFA ban.
The last bit, the lawsuit against the AIFF and a possible FIFA sanction, worried Stimac. So against this background, the three wins and qualifying made him ‘very happy’. But he makes sure he doesn’t get carried away. “I wouldn’t like to be euphoric like the supporters are,” he says. “Everyone expected us to qualify, so that’s not a special achievement.”
From a cozy corner of his hotel room in Warsaw, Stimac doesn’t just want to dwell on his moment of glory, which has come after ‘difficult and turbulent’ moments, and during the three years that have seen ‘more downs than ups’. But, he says, “I’d rather talk about problems than keep quiet.”
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And so Stimac, the defensive pillar of Croatia’s first golden generation of 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’s referred to before: the importance of a longer season with more matches, more playing time for Indian players, longer training camps for national teams and the government’s urging to change its policy on fish PIOs playing for India. .
Stimac then tackles a problem whispered in football circles but not efficiently addressed: domestic season scheduling, which largely relies on the Indian Premier League, which is broadcast on the same platform as the ISL.
“Something needs to be done about the football calendar, which is still being adjusted with regard to IPL and broadcasting… This has to stop if we want to make football great in India. The football calendar should not depend on other things,” he says.
With IPL media rights over $6 billion over the next five years, does Stimac fear it will further affect the domestic season? “India is blessed with a sport as popular as cricket, but we 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 should not suffer from cricket’, Stimac says.
When asked why he is talking about these issues now, three years after arriving in India, Stimac replies: “For the past three years we have not been in a position to talk too much. It was better for us to focus on work.”
Stimac took over as India’s coach in May 2019. He seemed prepared for the job, meticulous with his research on the Indian players and seemed to have a plan. It also started well, with the team nearly upset Oman in the first match of the 2022 World Cup and the joint qualifiers for the 2023 Asian Cup and then held Asian champions Qatar to a draw.
Then the wheels came off. For three consecutive wins in Asian Cup qualifiers in the past two weeks, India had won just six out of 25 matches under Stimac. “When I took the job I expected a very different situation, I expected everyone to be committed and ready to help the national team rise.”
According to Stimac, that has not always happened. He cites cases where players sometimes arrived ‘an hour and a half before’ a match for national team duties from their respective clubs. Often some of the main protagonists reported to camp injured, which forced him to set up rookies and tinker with the game 11. “…So I kind of focused on the work to make sure we don’t mess it up,” he adds to.
Stimac’s contract expires in September. SY Quraishi, who heads the three-member Committee of Trustees currently running the day-to-day running of the All India Football Federation, has reportedly said they will investigate and decide what should be done. Although Stimac says he is committed to India and wants to manage the team at the Asian Cup next year, he wants a discussion about his future soon.
“It is important to understand that the football calendar is different from the normal calendar. Coaches are hired ahead of the pre-season; their employment takes place in June, at the latest in July. So things have to be done earlier than he thinks,” he says. “I am very committed to AIFF. We have had three years of work, qualified for the Asian Cup and I would like to go with this team and prove to everyone that India can do better.”
His future as a coach may still be uncertain, but that doesn’t stop Stimac from making plans. He hopes a more streamlined season ahead will benefit all, has identified his core group of players, including those who made up the Asian Cup qualifying squad, and is already planning to host four international friendlies during the two FIFA matches. windows in September and March.
He is also pushing for longer camps and better communication with the ISL clubs to release the players and ensure they are fully fit. “ISL will not make India fall in love with Indian football. Only the national team will do that,” he says.
Stimac doesn’t stop smiling. But that doesn’t take the sting out of his words.