Indian men’s national football team coach Igor Stimac called for patience from the Indian football faithful as he set his sights on taking India to the 2023 men’s AFC Asian Cup finals after guiding the team to victory in the SAFF Championship in the Maldives last week.

India, who were the highest-ranked team at the tournament, made a slow start with draws against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka but bounced back to win their next three matches and claim the trophy.

The SAFF Championship, though, proved to be much harder to win than was expected for India, but the Croatian felt everything apart from the results in the first two games was encouraging.

“The first two games were bad only because of results,” Stimac told reporters during an online press conference. “There was no difference in approach, there was no big difference in statistics. There were enough shots on goal, enough creation, enough movement, enough energy on the pitch. But sometimes you don’t win. There was a lot of results pressure on our shoulders but we handled it well.

Stimac added: “Even I don’t consider this a special success because when India goes to SAFF (Championship), they’re expected to win. But we demonstrated that we were very dominant in this competition and we can progress this way.”

SAFF Championship takeaways: India’s youngsters show heart and skill as Sunil Chhetri leads the way

Stimac also pointed out the fact that India didn’t have enough preparation time before the competition and that led to the slow start.

“Nepal prepared for this competition for two and half months and deservedly reached the final,” Stimac said. “We didn’t have that and it was impossible to do better in this situation. I am delighted for the players because they worked very hard in very difficult circumstances and the feeling (of victory) is special for them.”

‘Progress won’t happen overnight’

India, though, have recorded just six wins in 22 matches under the former West Ham player and all the wins have come against lower-ranked teams. The Blue Tigers during that period have failed to beat Bangladesh and Afghanistan twice, Nepal and Sri Lanka once.

However, Stimac maintained that his project remains on the right track and needs patience from fans and the media.

“The media, the fans want everything to change quickly but national team coach can’t buy players so we have to follow a process. In that process we have to suffer, we have to go through this period,” the Croatian said.

“When I took the job two and half years ago, we started reconstructing the game from the very first day because we opted for more technical football, more ball possession football, we chose more technical players. So the technical committee who mostly consists of ex-players knew how much we would have to suffer in this process. I’m grateful for their support,” he added.

The Croatian also suggested that India have been slowly adopting and getting better at those principles. The Blue Tigers have also formed a pool of players that can take this project forward.

“Roughly speaking about the results, the only mistake or the only occasion where we didn’t fulfill the expectations was the home game against Bangladesh at Salt Lake. The rest of the games were in very difficult circumstances where no coach or no other team would perform better or get better results” Stimac said.

“We only played two home games in the qualifiers and still achieved our objective of qualifying for the third round. Also, the most important thing for me was that we developed knowledge of nutrition, training, about training plans during the off-season and the importance of rest.

“When we speak about certain areas of the pitch, we can say freely that after two and half years of work, we have a group of spinal players and for the other positions, there are at least three players with a similar level of quality. So we are not afraid of losing players anymore,” he continued.

‘Longer ISL needed’

The Croatian, though, still urged for more game time for his players in league football and said he was hoping for a longer ISL season.

“Because of this pandemic, we still can’t count on a season that will go on for 8-9 months. That is the biggest problem in Indian football,” Stimac said.

“The players always come to the national camp after the ISL season which is not great because we waste a lot of time on strength and conditioning programs instead of working on technical points. Then you cannot expect great things to happen,” he added.

‘Sunil Chhetri is at his peak’

The Indian team’s biggest asset has been their captain Sunil Chhetri who scored five out of the eight goals for the Blue Tigers in the SAFF Championship. He has also been on the scoresheet in ten of India’s last eleven matches. However, this is also India’s biggest weakness as there is no one who can step up in his absence.

Manvir Singh got on the scoresheet in the group game against the Maldives and also provided an assist but Stimac felt the ATK Mohun Bagan forward needs more time.

“Manvir and Chhetri are settling into a partnership and we need to give Manvir as much time as possible to develop. He’s shown in the last two years that he’s improving as a player. It would have helped if he played as a central striker with ATK Mohun Bagan,” Stimac said.

The Croatian also heaped praise on captain Chhetri who he felt was still at his peak.

“Of course, Chhetri’s influence is key for this team. It’s not just his goals but he is a role model. He is the most passionate man in the team which is incredible at his age. He plays because he deserves it. His physical condition is remarkable,” Stimac said.

“We can’t just play with Sunil upfront. We want someone to take the pressure off him. He needs a partner player upfront. Apart from Manvir, there’s Rahim Ali who has everything, but we need to use them in the league or they will not progress,” he added.

India’s next major assignment will be the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers and Stimac would need his team to produce much better results than what he has so far to help the team qualify for the finals.

The 54-year-old wants the national team to be prioritised when the schedule of the domestic season is being made as it will help the team prepare well for the games.

“We need to plan and prepare for the Asian qualifiers. We need to consider this February opening of the qualifiers as part of the ISL calendar and make sure all players are released. Otherwise, it’s just a gamble that we’ll be taking in the qualifiers,” he said.

“As a team, we want to play good football in these matches and qualify for the tournament,” he added.