Igor Stimac’s homework before coming to India, it turns out, extended much beyond the 36 names he’d shortlisted ahead of his interview. The straight-talking Croat was not shy to share his wisdom on various issues that have held back Indian football in the recent years.
His message to Indian Super League, which is trying to gatecrash its way to being the country’s premier championship: ‘You cannot buy tradition’. To the players, Stimac a muscular defender in his playing days urged them to be ‘lions and tigers’ on the field but underlined the need to improve tactical knowledge first. And to those at All India Football Federation (AIFF) who are obsessed with India’s World Cup qualification, the pillar of Croatia’s 1998 squad said everyone is ‘allowed to dream’ but there wasn’t any substitute to hard work, willingness to learn and professionalism.
Stimac, along with technical director Isac Doru of Romania, leads India into a new cycle after an unprecedented run under former coach Stephen Constantine, which ended with a first-round exit at Asian Cup in January. Stimac’s stint will be judged on two points: whether he can keep India in or around top-100 consistently; and if the national team can eventually qualify for the next Asian Cup.
A world class player, Stimac’s coaching record has been anything but top notch. In his controversial spell as Croatia’s coach in 2012-13, he led them to the playoffs of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers before he was sacked due to poor results. Since then, he hasn’t coached a national team, and his results with clubs in Iran, Qatar and Croatia have been modest.
On Friday, in his first media address since being appointed last week, Stimac was asked if AIFF’s fantasy of qualifying for the World Cup is realistic. The Croat, who knows a thing or two about the enormity of that task, was pragmatic more than patronising in his response. No one can stop our nation from dreaming… our players from dreaming or you dreaming. We are allowed to do so. But apart from that, hard work needs to be put. There needs to be willingness to learn, more professionalism and communication. Of course there are certain problems at the moment between the leagues, organisation, competition… everything can be solved with communication.
Stimac s biggest challenge: Finding Chhetri s back-up
Igor Stimac has inherited a team that is more or less well settled. His predecessor Stephen Constantine handed out debuts to 40 players during his four-year tenure, most of whom still find a place in the core group. The team needs slight fine-tuning in some positions, but Stimac's biggest challenge will be to identify an alternative to Sunil Chhetri. The Bengaluru FC striker is almost single-handedly responsible for all of India's major achievements in the last decade. Without him, India have looked toothless in fact, India's only defeat in the final round of qualifiers for the 2019 Asian Cup came in a match (against Kyrgyzstan) where Chhetri did not play. Chhetri is 34 and one of the fittest players in the team. But relying solely on him for goals isn't a healthy situation. No other striker has had the same impact as Chhetri. Jeje Lalpekhlua has endured one of his poorest seasons. Balwant Singh, Sumit Passi and Manvir Singh haven't inspired confidence while it remains to be seen if Jobby Justin, who's coming off a memorable I-League season, lives up to the hype in the national team set-up. Extracting best out of these players will be Stimac's biggest test.
Stimac made it clear he won’t directly get involved in the ISL vs I-League battle. For the last couple of seasons, the two tournaments are running simultaneously with both claiming they are are the top pision. This season, it was expected that ISL would officially be made the country’s premier league, but staunch opposition from I-League clubs has forced the AIFF to stall the plans.
Stimac didn’t mince words when talking about the two leagues. ISL is a privatised league with private owners who are investing money and of course, whoever is investing money is expecting to gain money, which is normal, he said. I-League has been there for many years. And I-League has something that ISL cannot buy tradition. It will take 100 years to become a traditional league for ISL. So I will find a way to help the I-League clubs to speed up their progression and ISL to get part of the tradition which is nowhere to be seen now.
Stimac, though, added it was possible to take advantage of the current scenario, given that ISL is where all top Indian players are currently playing while ‘I-League is where most of the young players are developing themselves.’ This, in fact, reflects in his first core group of players. Stimac inherits a team that is young and well-drilled, something Constantine needs to be credited for. But there were some notable, at times inexplicable, omissions as well. Players like right-back Rahul Bheke, midfielders Brandon Fernandes and Michael Soosairaj and forward Jobby Justin who had impressive last few seasons but were constantly ignored have been called up.
Stimac will prune the squad from 37 to 25 over the weekend and whether these players survive the chop remains to be seen. His first week with the players was about testing players’ endurance and explosive power. Starting Monday, the new coach said he’ll look at the technical aspects.
Improving the bench-strength for central defenders is his priority while at the same time, Stimac wants midfielders with better tactical awareness and reaction speed. Lack of concentration, lack of tactical movement and knowledge and reaction on the second ball, which is probably the most important in football… we are not good at it, we need to say this, he said. There were too many times where we conceded goals because of lack of concentration. What was the reason I don’t know, I wasn’t with players that time. (But) We need to have players with concentration in midfield, quick players… players with agility, capacity and good speed. Of course, heart is very important. We need to have tigers and lions out there… Stimac’s first assignment will be the King’s Cup in Thailand. India will take on Caribbean side Curacao, ranked 82, on June 5 and depending on the result, they’ll either face either Thailand or Vietnam on June 8. These matches will be followed by the Intercontinental Cup in July and the World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualifiers in September.
Stimac didn’t go overboard with promises. I will not promise good things will happen overnight. It will not. But with a little bit of luck, good work and understanding between my staff, players and AIFF, we’ll be okay.