Indian football has attained a standard of professional stability but what it needs now is the thrust to move forward. The onward momentum can only be achieved by bringing about drastic changes to the country’s major football leagues, feels Igor Stimac, head coach of India’s national men’s football team.
Intelligence is intrinsic to an Indian footballer. That is why stakeholders of the country’s football need to invest wisely in the development process. It means picking players at the right age and making them technically efficient before they turn 15.
Stimac, a celebrated defender with the Croatian World Cup team that finished third in the FIFA World Cup in 1998, talks about the national team, the Indian Super League (ISL), Indian players, and more, in a freewheeling interview with Sportstar.
How much has the national men’s football team progressed ever since you assumed office in July 2019, starting with the first assignment of playing the Intercontinental Cup?
You have the numbers telling us everything about it. The Hero Intercontinental Cup was the last set of friendly matches happening before the national team played the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. In the last 17 matches that the national team played, it won eight, drew five, and lost four matches. The win and draw together account for 80 percent, with a goal difference of +7 (24 in favour and 17 against).
Now, comparing the team’s performance in figures from the previous World Cup qualification process, [we find that] we increased ball possession by 11 percent, passing accuracy by seven percent, and goal difference by 12 percent. We finished third in the group stage — the last position in the previous qualifier. The numbers say that you are improving but the process of betterment continues.
We started the process of selecting and identifying the team in the Intercontinental Cup. It indicated that we go for players with better tactical ability as we were looking to involve more tactical aspects in our game. Such a drastic change requires more time than it normally takes to make a team just stable on the pitch. The process started with the King’s Cup in Thailand and was succeeded almost immediately by the Intercontinental Cup after which we identified the first squad of 25 players who would form the basis of the team that will be playing the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers. The performance of the team changed from game to game because of the short duration of the season in India. The consequence of having a short season is that you see a lot of your key players getting injured and as a result, the national team missed a lot of good players and could never stabilise. When I speak publicly about these problems some people say I am looking for an alibi but actually I am trying to find solutions to the problems and trying to motivate those who can resolve our problems and help Indian football.
There is a new committee in AIFF under the leadership of Kalyan Chaubey. What will be your advice to take Indian football forward?
I am happy to see people with such energy and enthusiasm in the leading positions of Indian football. My advice to the new committee will be to get behind closed doors and analyse the situation.
I have been able to speak to the general secretary Dr. Shaji (Prabhakaran). We all know the problems and how to approach them. Of course, there will be difficulties because we have certain agreements and arrangements with FSDL (Football Sports Development Ltd., operator of ISL) which need to be accommodated. But we now have to make sure that in the next season when the Asian Cup is happening, we keep the national team calendar as a priority.
Mr. Kaylan (Chaubey) is going places and doing important things for the federation so we didn’t have much time to discuss everything about Indian football.
The ISL is the most notable change happening to Indian football in a decade. What do you think about the League — has it been a help or a hindrance for the sport in the country?
It has definitely brought more positive things than negative. Now we have to look at further improvements which means more clubs in ISL. The number should be minimum 16 as we know there are five-six good clubs in the I-League which are ready to compete in ISL. This will guarantee a minimum of 30-32 games for the players in the competition.
The tournament should run for a minimum of six to seven months. These are the priorities on which we need to work. The ISL has helped in stabilising Indian football and made it look much better but now we have to look for betterment. The broadcast is nice and the pitches are beautiful and the players are enjoying much better conditions.
Again, Indian football is not only ISL, it is much more than that. The leaders of Indian football need to reorganise the competitions now as the promotion of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan from the I-League seems to have dealt a disastrous blow to the tournament. This means reaching out to the stakeholders again and trying to formulate a system of making the leagues look robust and challenging. In absence of promotion and relegation, the leagues are losing their competitiveness, which is crucial for the players to advance their game. If for the greater part of the season half of the players are fighting for nothing, then it is not competitive football, it is comfortable football.
There is a thinking that the I-League should be played without foreign players. Do you think it is a good way to bring up the Indian players?
That is definitely one of the ways. There are better ways too. Like taking a decision of not having foreign players in forward, attacking midfield and centre-back positions in ISL. That is another way of protecting the national team and the future of Indian football. The I-League is likely to see teams like Churchill Brothers, Mohammedan Sporting and Gokulam Kerala FC moving into the ISL. It will then become a promotional league for Indian talents and what then is the purpose of foreigners playing there? That will be the league opening the doors to Indian players, offering them enough playing time and good competitive level.
I went through these steps during the restructuring of football in Croatia. We have a population of only 3.5 million but have more registered clubs than India. When I was coming here many people told me, ‘it is a country with a population of 1.4 billion, you will find a lot of good players’. Population does not matter here, what really matters is how many professional players you have playing in good clubs.
It has been often said that many of the Indian players lack technical efficiency. The crop of players from the U-17 World Cup squad have aged and matured. Do you think that is going to eliminate the Indians’ technical backwardness?
Every new generation of players is looking better technically. I am not surprised to see the U-17 boys performing well and achieving results. This is another proof that an organised long-term national camp is yielding good results. It is about days and months of work put together to make something special and influence an improvement of the players’ technical ability individually and collectively as a team.
This is the clear proof of what actually should be done to the players. You have to provide them the tools to bring about their improvement. I would like to refer to the Asian Cup qualification round in Kolkata which clearly proved what our national team can achieve after an organised camp that would prepare them in a proper way.
India has a fairly long history of playing in the Asian Cup. It even became the runner-up once (in 1964). But since then, the national team has not been able to progress beyond the first round. How do you assess this situation?
Frankly, India’s last good performance in the Asian Cup was around 60 years ago when there were only four teams playing the tournament. Once the group stages were introduced, India most often finished at the bottom of the group whenever it was able to qualify to the main round.
As a coach, my responsibility is to take India one step forward. I am not saying that we are going to look for a third position in the group stages but we need to try harder and achieve something better. We need to be realistic about how much we invested in football and also be realistic about how much we are behind the top Asian countries in regards to the investment, quality of leagues, talent pool and especially the investment in development programmes.
How does one match expectations with reality?
I believe it can be done, that’s the beauty of football. The other day I saw Croatia side Dynamo Zagreb beating Chelsea (in the UEFA Champions League group stage) while a few years ago Leicester City won the Premier League. North Macedonia took Italy out of the World Cup by winning at the latter’s home. That’s how football is and all you have to do is to invest properly in utilising the chances coming your way.
How do you describe your stay in India so far? How much has the national team adapted to your coaching philosophy?
I won’t say that I did not bring something of a style or system with me. But what I have tried here is to find the best possible philosophy of playing which will suit the Indian players. And in all, these few years we have been able to get something in place. We will never be a team that will play with heavy possession as it doesn’t suit us. In that situation, what do we have? We have boys from the north part of the country who are strong physically and defensively good and then we have players from Manipur and Mizoram with speed and some from Bengal and Kerala adding to the pool. We know what kind of philosophy is needed for these boys, coming from different cultures and different regions, for them to function together.
Our focus in the last three and a half years was to work on the mindset of the players — essentially, not having the fear of defeat. The process that the players were put through was complicated and required them to understand the dynamics clearly. It looked to eliminate fear and uncertainty from the minds of the players and made them perform with a strong self-belief. It meant that even if they made a mistake, they would recover from it quickly and get back to the tactical shape. We were able to prove this during the final stage of the [Asian Cup] qualifiers that we are a team which is well-organised and disciplined. We play our football with verticality and not waste time playing wide and back passes. We are now working on the next stage of whether to play the low-block, middle press or high press game.
What do you say about the on-field decision making ability of the Indian players?
If you look at world football, there are five components that make the game now – speed, explosive power, endurance, agility and decision-making. For the first four, the coaches know how to instil that in a player but what creates the difference among the players is the ability to make quick decisions. And this is what divides the teams in the world. Teams having players with better decision-making ability are the top sides in world football. This is the aspect where I see India doing well in the future because one thing that Indians have is a good brain. That is the reason we need to set our development programmes properly and make the right selections for the future teams.
India’s ranking has been hovering around 100 for the last few years. But there’s not much international success to show for it. We have to be satisfied with a SAFF Cup win and qualification to the Asian Cup main round. What do you have to say about this?
Before 2016, the ranking system was different. It was again changed in 2018. The previous ranking system helped India because we made the right calculations in selecting our opponents and tournaments to advance the rankings. In that period, India advanced some 55 positions in the FIFA rankings. But after the ranking system changed in 2018 we have not done much. And I can tell you now that the present rank of 106 is not our realistic position and I can give you names of many countries which are ranked lower but are better than India realistically. The pandemic dealt a big blow as we missed out on the opportunity of organising friendlies in India. Not having home ‘friendlies’ is costing a lot to a team that is in the reconstruction process. In the home games, the referees tend to push the home side a bit and if we are playing the friendlies outside, the young boys whom I was trying to promote do not find it easy to play under that pressure. We need to be careful about this in the future when we plan the football calendar for the upcoming seasons.
You have given the national cap to more than 20 players in trying to find the best combination of players. Can we say now that there is a settled look to the team representing the country in the next few years?
Everything depends on how the players perform for their clubs. I am here to choose the best for the national team. I will have to pick a player who is consistently doing well for his club. Now, if a player spends most of his time on the bench for his club, how can I pick him? This has been the problem in the previous seasons, too.
After we had identified a player looking at his physical parameters and speed and thought him to be a good prospect, he was confined to the bench for most of the time by his club and also played him in different positions compared to his natural position because that position was occupied by a foreigner.
These are some of the problems that we need to resolve.
The question of proper development of players comes here too. We do not need stadiums worth billions of dollars but what we need is good investment in football development. Which means you need to start the development process at an early age and make him or her a technically sound player by the age of 15. I must say here that we are eight to 10 years behind compared to top Asian countries in terms of development.
The AIFF recently decided to disband its developmental side Indian Arrows and start an elite youth league. Do you think that is a positive step?
At this moment, I think it is the right decision as Indian Arrows as a project has served its purpose. These boys need to play in the organised clubs in I-League and in ISL, if they are good enough. Also, as a football federation, it is not right to have a camp of 12 months for a certain group. These players need to get into the club system and should try to get in the national team on merit. There is nothing new to be developed in football and all we need to do is follow good role models. Everything has already been invented and we just need to pick up the right concept applicable to our country.
You have been given a contract extension by AIFF till the Asian Cup final stage. But you have also been given a performance target, do you feel under pressure because of that?
I am not planning to stay after the Asian Cup so the performance target does not apply there. I have done everything for the boys with passion and put all my knowledge for their development — be it man management, improvement of their technical ability, mindset, and fitness. I have also given them knowledge about nutrition and diet and this will basically complete the cycle of five years after the Asian Cup main round. So, it is logical that I stay with them till the end of the Asian Cup and then move on to my other plans. What I will do now is give everything I have and see that they not only qualify for the quarterfinals but move even further.
There seems to be a vacuum in the striking department with hardly any name complimenting the great Sunil Chhetri upfront? How big a crisis do you think is this for the Indian team?
How many club teams have Indian players in the striking position? How many Indians do you see playing in good foreign leagues? The answer to both questions is a ‘none’. I don’t have a magic wand with which I will create a striker. I need proper time to work with the boys to play them as strikers. It is quite simple: something in our structure needs to be changed. That is why I have been suggesting some drastic changes in our approach. We have to protect some positions which are in deficit for Indian players. And that is — centre-back, attacking midfield and forward positions. I have 25 good wingers with very little difference between them and now people want some of those wingers to play as forwards. How on earth is that going to happen? We need to ask ourselves the question: ‘Are we giving the national team enough tools that are required for it to move forward?’
We cannot even have the POI players as is the case with many other countries, which recall their players playing in foreign leagues to strengthen their national sides. Look at teams like Iran, Japan and Australia — each of them have 18 or 19 players playing in the big clubs of Europe. And we have to compete with them when it comes to World Cup qualification.