On Wednesday, Igor Stimac was appointed as head coach of the Indian senior men’s national team by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) for a two-year period. The 51-year-old will begin his tenure with the Kings’ Cup in Thailand in June before playing the Intercontinental Cup on home soil.
The true challenge, though, will begin in September when he tries to help India better their performance in the second round of the World Cup qualifying campaign. The Blue Tigers have never gone past this stage and finished bottom of their qualifying group in their previous campaign, losing five out of six games.
Stimac will have to not just instill his philosophy in the coming months but also ensure it doesn’t come at a cost of results that could drain the confidence of his squad ahead of the qualifiers.
Understanding the dynamics
Stimac’s predecessor Stephen Constantine had the advantage of having two stints as India’s head coach. However, despite prior knowledge and understanding of the Indian footballing culture, Constantine needed two years to bed in his philosophy with the team.
Stimac, a complete newcomer to Indian shores, would need help from his assistants to get acquainted with the psyche of the Indian footballers as soon as possible.
Stimac has had short stints in Asia at the club level with Sepahan in the Persian Gulf Pro League and Al-Shahania in Qatar Stars League, but neither yielded great success. His only significant performances as a manager came in his home country Croatia where he led Hadjuk Split to a national league title in 2004-05.
Also read: How Igor Stimac became India’s football coach
A lot has been said about Stimac’s profile that includes guiding Croatia to the 2014 FIFA World Cup but not so long ago, another such high-profile name – Wim Koevermans – struggled to make a mark. In an attempt to deploy an expansive style of football, Koevermans who won the 1998 European Championships as a player, completely ignored the inability of his players to thrive in his style of play. He eventually left with India languishing at a FIFA ranking of 173. Stimac who is known to build his teams on tactical discipline will have to gauge the players’ preparedness before pressing ahead with his tactical system.
The initial noises coming from the Stimac camp seem to be encouraging as the Croatian has shown a willingness to work with what he has at hand. According to a report in The Times of India , Stimac said he would be happy to work alongside Indian support staff and won’t make a fuss if the condition of the training grounds didn’t match up to those in Europe.
Attracting quality opposition
Constantine, in his second spell, was constantly at war with the AIFF for not providing him with the right opportunities to improve the team, be it through the exposure tours or through friendly games with strong opponents.
In 2016, India’s preparatory camp in the US was canceled on the cusp of their departure due to a combination of problems that included visa issues, clash of dates with the pre-season with Indian Super League (ISL) sides and the total cost of the tour. Constantine made no attempt to hide his displeasure at AIFF’s operational efficiency during various media interactions throughout his tenure that were triggered by other incidents like opponents pulling out of tournaments and not sending their strongest sides for the competitions arranged by the AIFF in India.
Apart from dealing with the fickle nature of the AIFF’s actions, Stimac will have to make his bigger reputation count by attracting top quality opposition for his team. The Croatian should use his clout in Europe to help set up camps and friendlies in Croatia and elsewhere.
He will get a chance to test the skills of the players against quality opposition in the Kings’ Cup and the Intercontinental Cup if there are no late pull-outs like last time. In case of any, the 51-year-old will have to keep motoring along without letting his anguish get to the players.
Uncertainty around the domestic structure
There is no clarity on how India’s forthcoming domestic football season will shape up. The I-League clubs’ battle to maintain its top-flight status took an ugly turn in recent times with eight clubs deciding against participating in the Indian Super Cup.
With the calendar of the league still a mystery, Stimac could be forced to make last-minute adjustments to his plans with the national team to accommodate the needs of the league.
Chhetri and Constantine often raised the problem of clubs not being at par with the national team in terms of training, preparation and fitness levels of players. An absence of one unified league is likely to hamper the establishment of uniformity in training regimes. In the ISL, the level of the basic training infrastructure is better but one can’t say the same about the I-League.
Thus, a league with higher quality and intensity is necessary to ensure that national team players perform well in top international competitions. A competition that brings India’s best talent together is the only solution to achieve it. As things stand, it may not be a privilege Stimac will enjoy.
An aging Sunil Chhetri and lack of alternatives
Chhetri is India’s talisman. Without their influential skipper, India is a much lesser team. Chhetri has scored a large chunk of India’s goals in recent times and that includes two of the four they scored in the AFC Asian Cup.
India’s over-reliance on Chhetri comes up as a weakness against quality opponents, but the lack of possible replacements on the horizon is an even bigger concern. The Indian captain will turn 35 later this year and his performances despite his high fitness levels, are expected to dip in the coming years.
With most club sides opting for foreigners in the center-forward or the No 10 roles, positions which Chhetri usually plays for India, the Blue Tigers have struggled to develop alternatives. Jeje Lalpekhlua who has been the only other consistent source of goals for the national team has suffered a dip in form. His resurgence is not guaranteed with him approaching his thirties.
The likes of Manvir Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan who have been deployed in those positions are too inexperienced and unreliable to take forward the mantle while Balwant Singh hasn’t proved his quality with the national team.
India may find Chhetri’s leadership skills a bit easier to replace with Constantine blooding a few other players to take over as captain, but his consistency in front of goal will be hard to replicate.
Indeed, finding a long-term replacement for Chhetri will be one of Stimac’s biggest challenges.
Indian football may not have moved mountains in the recent past, but it has certainly attracted more eyeballs with the launch of the ISL. The broadcast of the national team matches has improved in the last couple of years and there is genuine interest on social media as well.
India’s first win in the AFC Asian Cup in over 50 years and an admirable showing in the UAE has also generated renewed hope among fans.
Most fans in India that follow European football are desperate to see India take big strides towards becoming a force at least at the Asian level. And Stimac, who takes over a group of players that seemed to peak at the Asian Cup earlier this year, will need to deal with the growing pressure from the fans and the media alike.
Expecting Stimac to drastically change the fortunes of Indian football would be harsh, given the lack of long-term growth measures undertaken by the AIFF in the past. At the same time, Stimac whose managerial track record doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence needs to show that he is more than up for the job.
The AIFF feel they have made a statement by appointing a World Cup-star as their coach, but the next few months will show if their marquee managerial recruit can live up to the hype.
Also read: How Igor Stimac became India’s football coach