Career politicians in India are often censured for their bizarre volte-face and capacity to make it with grace and equanimity. The trend, it seems, has hit Indian football too.

Indian men’s national football team coach Igor Stimac recently made no secret of his displeasure about the conduct of domestic football in India. Having finished the World Cup qualifiers campaign with just seven points from eight outings and a negative goal difference in a relatively easier group, the Croatian wasn’t ready to accept the responsibility for the way his team stood exposed when faced with the challenge of snatching three points against lower-ranked teams.

Stimac, in fact, made clear the onus for the forgettable show was entirely on the existing system – his coaching style and method shouldn’t be under the scanner. In his words, a bland Indian Super League having no provision for promotion and relegation is the biggest stumbling block for the development, followed by a system where top players hardly get to play 30 matches in a season.

“They need to play more than 40 matches a season. It is only then that they can compete against the best in the continent. The clubs need to be playing football for a longer period, otherwise, the players will be sitting idle for half the year,” Stimac said.

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The man who was part of the Croatia side that finished third in the 1998 World Cup has clearly targeted the ISL-dominated Indian football system. He, perhaps, wasn’t far from the truth. But has the reality suddenly dawned on the coach after a dismal pre-World Cup campaign? Only three months ago, Stimac had little complaint against the country’s top league. On the contrary, he heaped praise on the way ISL conducted the meet and kept footballers in shape during the pandemic.

“I need to say that I am 100% right when I am saying something like that this season was the best ISL season yet. Because this was the most difficult season for all the players, all the stakeholders involved due to the Covid-19 situation,” Stimac said in March.

The coach didn’t stop here. He added saying, “We watched wonderful goals, great action and open football most of the time. We could enjoy it. I need to say once again, thank you once again for making my life easier here.”

Not a new situation

Well, Stimac is not the first person in Indian football administration to change track. The list of his prototypes is fairly long and includes many well-known names in the fraternity. The question is, why Stimac chose to attack a system that many consider as sacrosanct; many heads have rolled in the past for the slightest attempt to undermine the biggest showpiece event in Indian football.

If the outcome of the recently held meeting of the All India Football Federation’s technical committee is any indication, then Stimac’s continuation beyond September is not a surety. There was recently an extension offered with reportedly no guarantee the Croatian would be seen in the technical area for the Asian Cup qualifiers next year.

Whatever the reasons are behind Stimac’s outburst, he hasn’t uttered anything new – it can’t even be labelled as old wine in a new bottle. In the past seven years, many, including Stimac’s immediate predecessor, Stephen Constantine, said similar things – only to be ignored by people responsible for running the game in India.

The problem is, many of those who regularly argue in favour and against India’s prevailing soccer structure, are often suspected of having an axe to grind. In 2015, Constantine vehemently blamed the ISL for many ills of Indian football – he found their over-reliance on foreigners and the level of fitness of the local players highly detrimental to the improvement of the national team.

Two years later, Constantine was quoted as saying: “The ISL has made us universal. It has told everybody in the world that Indians not only play football but we’re not bad either, and we have some good players.

“The ISL is providing the opportunity to the Indian player, I expect them to approach it positively, be inquisitive and learn as much as possible to add expertise and more value the Indian player and Indian football as a home,” he said. The two-year stay in India had definitely made the then national coach much wiser.

The fault, however, lies elsewhere. Neither Stimac nor Constantine could hit the nail on the head (or they deliberately preferred to beat around the bush). After all, if the system is wrong, then those who actually created it should take the blame. Stimac found it amusing to have the country’s top league without promotion-relegation.

“Don’t get me wrong, but the ISL is not bringing pressure, there is no relegation. It’s far different from playing to level international football,” Stimac said.

But Stimac didn’t question who actually gave permission to convert a so-called entertainment league into country’s top league? It didn’t stop there – the bosses did everything possible to convince the Asian body that it was necessary to convert the nation’s premier meet into a closed league with a promise to open it up after a few years.

The faults in our system

Stimac, of course, can’t bring any such allegation on the table – he has a contract to honour with his employers. But many of those who are connected with the game in India are concerned with the development in the past few years.

A top footballer, who was an integral part of the national team only recently, told this correspondent, “The current trend is definitely worrying. We will never improve because we don’t get to play throughout the year. Count the matches and you will find not even the national team players are playing more than 25 to 30 matches in a season. You simply cannot attain excellence by playing just one tournament.

“In the early days of my career, we had so much opportunity to play. Apart from the I-League, there were so many tournaments across the country. I feel sad for the footballers of the current generation,” he said.

Former national coach Subhas Bhowmick said: “No one can improve by playing so few matches. ISL is fine, but you need to have additional tournaments throughout the year and across the country. Indian football doesn’t have a single top-tier knock-out tournament. It is a huge drawback that can harm the game in the long run.

“Moreover, why talk about the front-ranking footballers only? What about the upcoming youngsters? It is fashionable to dismiss Durand, Rovers, IFA Shield or Santosh Trophy as outdated meets, but they offered platforms for young players to attract attention. A couple of youth I-Leagues can’t be regarded as true alternatives,” Bhowmick said.

Indian football is currently driven largely by marketing gimmicks; Stimac, in all probability, understands the scenario more than anyone else. Even if he is offered an extension till the end of Asian Cup qualifiers, nothing extraordinary is expected to emerge from the campaign. The Croatian coach is fully aware of it – all that he is saying could only be an attempted preamble to ease the pain in advance.