Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac was in a defiant mood as he strongly defended his work with the national team during his two-year period as coach suggesting he was satisfied with the progress of his project given the extraordinary circumstances it has faced in the last two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

India finished their World Cup qualifying campaign in third position to ensure a place in the third round of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers but they only managed a single win in the entire campaign. While the Blue Tigers only conceded seven goals, a big improvement from the 18 they had shipped in the previous campaign, they only managed to score seven goals, as compared to six last time around.

The lack of creativity and more predominantly the lack of goalscorers in the Indian ranks was exposed again as captain Sunil Chhetri did the bulk of the scoring. He has netted 50% of the goals India scored under the Croatian.

The 53-year-old Stimac admitted that his team has struggled in the final third of the pitch but felt the onus of finding a fix to the problem, a large part of which involves finding a successor to Chhetri is not on the national team coaching staff.

“The national team is not an academy. It is not a factory of players. We only use what comes to us from the ISL and I-League,” Stimac told reporters during online interaction.

“In the leagues, the foreign players do the main things and the Indians are not so much involved in scoring and assisting. As a coach of the national team, I’m not working with the players on a daily basis, I can just use what I get from the ISL. So how are we going to find the next Sunil Chhetri?” he added.

The Croatian called for more work at the grassroots level for India to produce more technically sound players who can deliver better attacking inputs. It’s a process he feels India can count on if they make the right decisions.

“There is a long, long way for us. And if we talk about long term plans, it all comes back to us about academy work, about involving more foreign coaches in academies at the grassroots who can teach Indian coaches how to execute passing drills, what is the required speed of thinking, what is the speed of positioning that’s needed and what is the necessary speed of passing?” Stimac said.

“When all this comes to one point where we can be satisfied with the output of the players, then we can achieve great success as a country,” he added.

Stimac welcomed the 3+1 foreigner rule that will be implemented in the ISL from next season but suggested there could be further restrictions on the recruitment of the foreign players to benefit the Indian set-up more.

“It depends what to expect from the foreign player rule as ISL teams can still sign more foreign players for one position as they can have multiple foreign players in the squad. If there’s a limit on signing just one foreign striker or an attacker, an Indian player in that position may get more chances and it will help the national team,” he said.

The 53-year-old pointed out at FC Goa’s campaign in the AFC Champions League where they struggled to score goals playing with just four foreign players on the pitch. He felt it was a reminder of the reality facing Indian football where attacking players are hard to come by.

“FC Goa made us all proud with their performance but if you see the statistics, they averaged six shots per game with 1.8 on target. It’s a reality that we must accept,” the coach said.

“In that context, what makes me proud is the fact that the Indian national team has better attacking numbers than FC Goa, and I didn’t even have a single foreign player in my team,” he said.

The Croatian also highlighted the physical improvements his players have made under his tenure and called it one of the bigger successes of his term.

“The fat percentage of the players was 12 which was unacceptable when I took over (in May 2019). Now all of them are around 7.5%. That is exceptional,” he said.

“Sandesh Jhingan gained 4kgs muscle mass while cutting down 5kgs of weight. He is playing with stamina for full ninety minutes and not getting injured anymore. These are the things that we are proud of educating players about nutrition. These are real examples of our achievement,” he added.

However, the results haven’t been kind to the Croatian who has overseen just two wins in his tenure. The All India Football Federation only extended his contract till September with the technical committee set to meet next month to review his position for the period beyond his existing contract.

With his future very much in the balance after recent results, Stimac said he was ready to accept whatever the committee decides.

“I am honoured to be working with AIFF. I appreciate the support given. We have a good platform for the future. It is now on the AIFF technical committee, AIFF, and President to decide my future. If they are not happy with my performance I am ready to accept that,” Stimac said.

After AFC pushed the third round of AFC Asian Cup qualifiers to February, India now have plenty of time to get ready for the competition. But with the ISL only set to be beginning in October or November, there’s a challenge for AIFF and Stimac to get more competitive matches for his players before the qualifiers begin.

His future with the Indian national team is far from secured, but Stimac has already started to pl ahead.

“There are Fifa windows and we have to make the most of it. We plan to start the national camp in August for two international matches in September. Then depending on the start of ISL, we will continue to work with the national team with two more friendlies in October and November. Then the ISL can start and when in February the third round qualifiers will start the players will be ready.” the Croatian said.