Stimac: Hope to be part of a generation which changed Indian football

It has been a whirlwind six months or so for Igor Stimac at the helm of the Indian national team. The Croat’s influence on Indian football has been tangible, with the impact of his philosophy pretty apparent on the Blue Tigers’ renewed style of play and approach to games. In a recent Facebook Live Question and Answer session with Anant Tyagi on the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) Facebook page, Stimac looked back at his time in India so far, laid out his vision for the future and discussed an array of different subjects, including the Hero ISL, Sunil Chhetri and various players. Here, we curate some of the highlights from the interaction.

The pretext and journey so far

Speaking about his reaction to landing the role, Stimac said, “I was excited about such a massive job which was in front of me. I went for the challenge, did my best in the interview. The expectations were high. After the interview, I could feel that the technical committee was happy with what they heard. When it was announced that I was the chosen one, I knew I didn’t have much time to waste. I started preparing myself immediately to come to this beautiful country and change the course of Indian football. I already feel like at home.”

Reminiscing about his journey so far, Stimac stated, “We had a great few games. We had some very difficult games. I consider the games where we are dubbed favourites the most difficult. And you are still not ready to take that part and do it properly. But what I can say is India have become a very difficult team to beat, which was not happening before. We played five games and conceded only five goals – a big improvement from the last one where we conceded 18.”

“When I compare the work we have done in the last six months to the work Mr Stephen Constantine had done during his tenure, there’s a massive difference and we have just started our work. There’s been an improvement in ball possession, number of passes, reducing long balls, passing accuracy, improving the tempo. Now India has seven players who can cover a distance of 12,000 meters, including sprints. There is much more effectiveness in our game. What we need to do is improve our maturity. We are making silly mistakes and unluckily we got punished for them every time. We have a lot to work on,” he added.

Plans for the immediate future – 10 friendlies in Europe

Expanding on what lies ahead for Indian football in the immediate future, the World Cup bronze medalist revealed, “I dedicated myself a million per cent to this job. It’s not just about choosing 23 players, training them on the pitch and playing the match. So much work has gone on behind the scenes in the last six months – for the future calendars, meetings with the FSDL and Reliance, club owners. There are so many people involved in our football family and that’s the only way we can develop football in our country. With regards to games, we are quite sure we will have 10 friendly games until June. I have presented my calendar to the technical committee members.”

“Once the Hero ISL is over, we will have a national team camp in March before the Qatar game and we will have another friendly match. After that, before the camp in June, we are taking the team to Europe for six to seven weeks, where we will play 10 games. The players will have more than 40 games this year. We are working hard on that.”

The long-term vision – dream needs to become a realistic hope

Illustrating his ambitions and aspirations for India in the long term, Stimac noted, “When I came here, I was asked to go the direction Mr Constantine stopped at. I was asked to change everything and that’s far more difficult than continuing something. I needed to identify the players who could adjust to the game we wanted to implement and play the type of football that fans want to watch. I needed to identify them, improve their technical abilities and change their mentality. I am very proud of how the players reacted to the challenges they came across. We are collectively not happy to not have won against Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but things will change.”

“There’s a hope. We are developing and preparing a team which will mature and ensure India become a strong contender to qualify for the 2026 World Cup. It cannot be a dream anymore, it needs to become a very realistic hope. We aren’t far away from that. We are working on a few things but once they bear fruit, it will help us to develop much quicker.”

On criticisms

The road so far, however, hasn’t been an entirely smooth one for the Croat. While he has found admirers for his expressive style of play and a few of India’s performances under him, particularly the goalless draw against Asian Champions Qatar, criticisms haven’t been far behind owing to some seemingly underwhelming results, most notably against Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Addressing the critics, Stimac remarked, “I have heard people say that I am buying time with what I say. I didn’t come to India to buy myself time. I took time from my family to come here and help Indian football. I want to help change the course of Indian football, so India gets a proper chance of getting to the World Cup and fulfilling the dream of the fans. I might not be here when it happens but when India gets there, people will say Igor started this.”

“We are working on many fronts and we have done good work already. I hope football will grow and flourish in India. This is what we need. I hope we are part of the generation which changes football in India.”

The selection criteria and the youngsters

Known for putting his faith on young players, Stimac has taken a very different route from his predecessor when it comes to his team selection. Elaborating on what he looks for in potential India players, the 52-year-old stated, “My work is based on following the players’ form in the Hero ISL and I-League and selecting the ones in best form. We have created a competitive atmosphere. They need to make sure they are performing well and their teams are doing well. It cannot be a flash, they have to sustain good performances throughout the season. That’s the only way to expect my call. I don’t divide players by age. For me, there are good players and not good enough.”

“For example, Kerala Blasters FC’s Jeakson Singh. His age is great, he is doing well, I follow his games. He needs to keep improving, pushing himself and he can be part of the senior national team. That’s the only thing he needs to keep doing.”

“Jamshedpur FC’s Farukh Choudhary has been brilliant this season. He is dribbling at the right time, making good runs, making a difference. He was providing great passes to teammates and doing some great stuff. He deserves his call to the national team, it is well-deserved and he was involved in the last two matches.”

Reflecting on whether the reputation and fan affection for a player can influence his decisions, he added, “I cannot put myself in the skin of the supporters. If we have a forward player who does good dribbles and gives a few good passes, it doesn’t mean he should be immediately called up for the national team. Football today, needs players who have the capacity to attack and defend, who can run a lot. We are looking for players who will be playing for India against the likes of Qatar and Japan.”

The big Sunil Chhetri question

One of the biggest points in Indian football in recent times have been ‘What next after Sunil Chhetri’s retirement?’ Giving his own take on the matter, Stimac reiterated, “Honestly, the question irritates me. We have Sunil Chhetri in the team – that happens once in every decade or two. But still everyone keeps asking ‘When is he leaving or what next once he leaves?’. Let him enjoy his game. Why are we putting pressure on him? He has enough years left in him, he is enjoying his game, he has confidence and he is still scoring goals. As for what we will do once he leaves, we need to replace him as a team, as a group. It’s not about an individual player. It has to be a team effort because players like him, it’s very difficult to replace. We cannot see anyone now, or in five years, replacing him. It has to be a team effort.”

Further explaining the talismanic striker’s influence on the squad, the India head coach revealed, “His influence is amazing, but he is a guy who never crosses the line. That is very important for a coach. He is very positive and tries to teach the young players how not to waste their time. Time goes by quickly and he knows that he could have done better himself if he hadn’t wasted some of his years.”

On Sandesh Jhingan’s injury

The recent long-term injury to defender Sandesh Jhingan has been detrimental for the Indian team. Admitting his star defender’s absence has been a big blow, Stimac underlined, “Every coach tries to identify the leaders in the team. I knew we will have Sunil Chhetri. When I came here, I found out we had Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sandesh Jhingan. Having three of them, one in each line, is a treasure. To lose one of them, who is as much important as Chhetri, is a big loss. He organizes other defenders and young lads around him and in front of him. He is prepared to do everything necessary to stop conceding goals. We miss him.”

A shoutout for the fans

Stimac also used the interaction as a platform to express his gratitude to the fans and stated, “I would love to express my appreciation for the fans, who have been supporting us. They came in big numbers at Guwahati, then in Kolkata. To all the Manjappada fans who have been waiting on us everywhere we go. We appreciate everyone who has been coming to the national team games. We feel their love and support and we will pay them back.”

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