It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Igor Stimac as the head coach of the senior men’s Indian national team. The Croat took charge of the Blue Tigers in May 2019, taking over from predecessor Stephen Constantine, who had stepped down after the AFC Asian Cup in January that year.

Back in 2019 during the Hero Intercontinental Cup in Ahmedabad, Stimac spoke about helping Indian players improve their technical and physical abilities in order to play an attractive brand of football. Four years down the line, the process is bearing fruit. India have transitioned into an aggressive side that is confident on the ball and that likes to attack.

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Stimac’s side have been unbeaten in 2023 so far, also winning three titles in the process. They have played 11 games, ending up on the winning side on nine occasions besides scoring 16 goals and conceding just twice. When asked about accepting the offer as India head coach, Stimac spoke about his motive behind taking up the role.

“At the time when I decided to go back to management… the first offer came from India, ‘would you be interested?’ At first, I said ‘Oh my God! India? What kind of football is there? They are nowhere on the map of football.’ But then, I went into research and I could clearly see that something is happening there; something better, something different. The size of the challenge is what attracted me. Because it's easy to go into an organised club and coach. It’s easy,” Stimac revealed in a recent episode of In the Stands show hosted by Suyash Upadhyaya.

“And as it was the first offer, I didn't want to wait anymore. I went for it. I came here for the interview. The (AIFF) Technical committee was interested with what I had to say. And that was it. That’s how it started,” he added.

Stimac has not only produced great results in recent times as head coach, but has also played a part in the development of many Indian players. Lallianzuala Chhangte, Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa, Akash Mishra - to name a few - are some of the players who have replicated their club form on the international stage and have established themselves as an integral part of the national team. Stimac revealed that while he likes to be friendly with his players, he ensures that there is a balance.

“I'm trying to be kind of a father to them, in regards to giving them advices and helping them improve in each aspect of their life as a human being as a player and as a sportist (sportsperson). I'm trying to be their friend but there is a certain line and I don't want to cross this. I don't want to be their best friend,” he explained.

“They will always see that I’m wearing a smile on my face. That I'm humble and good to them until a certain line. If I see that some of them are not committed enough, that they cannot be here,” he further stated.

In October last year, Stimac signed a contract extension with the national team, which would run until the end of the AFC Asian Cup 2023. India have been paired alongside Uzbekistan, Australia and Syria in their group in what appears to be a tough draw on paper. However, while there is still uncertainty about Stimac’s future as India head coach, he made it clear that his focus was on getting the team ready for the continental event in Qatar.

“The AFC Asian Cup is happening until January. I will be a free agent in February, which is practically the final third of the season happening all over the world in football. I might have a gap of two-three months there, waiting for another job. But I will see. I don't think about that. I am fully concentrated for what we need to do for the AFC Asian Cup,” he revealed.

Stimac also did not rule out extending his contract with India after the AFC Asian Cup and he expects his players to continue their good form this year. The national team will be back in action in September and October respectively with India set to battle it out in the Kings Cup (Thailand) and the Merdeka Cup (Malaysia).

“I didn't say (that) I wouldn't think to stay..My contract runs out (but) we are enjoying a good moment. I expect a few more good games from us and few more wins,” he said.

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