Igor Stimac never stops smiling. Even when talking about some of the prickly issues holding back Indian football. And certainly not when looking forward to the Asian Cup, for which he hopes to stay on as the coach of the national team.
India, last Tuesday, qualified for the continental championship, rounding off the qualifiers with an emphatic 4-0 win over Hong Kong. The free-flowing, high-intensity performance came as an antidote for Indian football which was reeling after multiple blows – the below-par performances of the national team, 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 court action against the AIFF and a possible FIFA sanction, had Stimac worried. So, in this backdrop, the three wins 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 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 reflect on his moment of glory, which has come after ‘difficult and turbulent’ moments, and during the three years that had ‘more downs than ups’. But, he says: “I rather speak about problems instead of keeping quiet.”
And so, Stimac, the defensive pillar of Croatia’s first golden generation of players – the batch that reached the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup – goes on the offensive regarding the issues that Indian football is currently facing.
He talks about things that he’s referred to many times before – the importance of having a longer season with more matches, giving Indian players more playing time, having longer duration national team training camps, and urging the government to revise its policy vis-à-vis PIOs playing for India.
Stimac then takes head-on an issue that’s whispered in football circles but not dealt with efficiently: the scheduling of the domestic season, which depends largely on the Indian Premier League, which is broadcast on the same platform as the ISL.
“Things need to be sorted out about the football calendar, which is still being adjusted with regards to IPL and broadcasting… This needs to stop if we want to make football great in India. Football calendar should not depend on other things,” he says.
With IPL media rights for the next five years going for more than $6 billion, does Stimac fear that it will further impact the domestic season? “India is blessed to have a sport as popular as cricket but shouldn’t be afraid to have another sport becoming as popular. And to do so, they need to open the door to football. Otherwise, it will not happen. Football shouldn’t suffer because of cricket,” Stimac says.
Asked why he’s talking about these issues now, three years after arriving in India, Stimac replies: “Throughout the last three years, we were not in a position to talk too much. It was better for us to concentrate on work.”
Stimac took over as India’s coach in May 2019. He seemed prepared for the job, looking meticulous with his research on the Indian players and appeared to have a plan. It began well, too, with the team nearly upsetting Oman in the first match of the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifiers and then holding Asian champions Qatar to a draw.
The wheels then came off. Before the three back-to-back wins during the Asian Cup qualifiers in the last fortnight, India had won just six out of 25 matches under Stimac. “When I took the job, I was expecting a far different situation, I was expecting everyone to be committed and ready to help the national team rise.”
That, Stimac claims, didn’t always happen. He cites instances where players, sometimes, arrived for national team duties from their respective clubs an ‘hour-and-a-half prior’ to a game. Many times, some key players, he claims, reported to the camp injured, which forced him to field debutants and tinker with the playing 11. “…So I was rather concentrating on the job trying to make sure we don’t mess up,” he adds.
Stimac contract runs out in September. SY Quraishi, who heads the three-member Committee of Administrators that is currently running the day-to-day affairs of the All India Football Federation, has reportedly said they will look into it and decide what has to be done. Although Stimac says he’s committed to India and wants to manage the team at 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. Coaches are employed prior to pre-season; their employment happens in June, latest July. So things need to be done earlier than he thinks,” he says. “I am very committed to AIFF. We finished three years of work, qualified for the Asian Cup and I would love to take this team and prove to everyone that India can do better.”
His future as the coach might still not be secure but that hasn’t stopped Stimac from planning. He hopes that a more streamlined upcoming season will be beneficial for all, has identified his core group of players that includes those who were a part of the Asian Cup qualifiers squad, and is already planning to have four international friendlies during the two FIFA windows in September and March.
He also insists on longer camps and better communication with the ISL clubs regarding releasing the players and ensuring 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 does not stop smiling. But that doesn’t take the sting out of his words.