Igor Stimac arrived on the country’s shores months after India’s bittersweet AFC Asian Cup campaign. The Blue Tigers had fought valiantly before crashing out of the tournament in the final few minutes of the game. Former coach Stephen Constantine had announced his departure minutes after the team’s ouster, and a broad chase for his replacement was conducted over three months.
From being a part of Croatia’s “golden generation” that finished third at the 1998 FIFA World Cup to later coaching the national team, Stimac was seen as the man to awaken Indian football from its enduring slumber.
The Croat, a burly defender in his day, wanted to enforce a possession-based, passing game from the defence with the Blue Tigers — a complete contrast to Constantine’s philosophy. During the Englishman’s second stint, the teams were drilled to play in a defence-first approach and became synonymous with a route-one approach in attack.
So when Stimac set about on the training ground, it was a drastic change initially, but the players have warmed up to his style of play.
“My favourite memory playing under Stimac would be the first game I played against Thailand in the King’s Cup. I kept a clean sheet and we won that game 1-0. The entire team fought really well and I was really happy to win in the first game and keep a clean sheet,” says goalkeeper Amrinder Singh, who recently led Mumbai City FC to the Indian Super League title and the League Winner’s Shield .
The win over Thailand was a positive start for the new coach, but that remains his only victory with the team to date . India has won one game, drawn five and lost six. Amrinder feels the team will be able to do better if the coach has more time with his players and longer camps, but the Covid-19-enforced break last year meant the national team was out of action for 15 months between December 2019 and February 2021, while Stimac’s two-year contract comes to an end in May — a month before India’s final three FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
“I feel the last two years have been difficult for the coach. There has not been a lot of time in the camps for him to set his plan and he has not had proper time with the players as such. The good thing is that in whatever time he has got, all the players have adapted to his style well,” says Amrinder.
Breaking down the coach’s workings, he says, “He explains things very well to each player. He tells us what he expects from us in each position. He needs more time — if we get a good long camp for one month or 40 days, you will see there will be a massive improvement and difference in our performance. I am confident that we will do well going ahead.”
Defensive midfielder Rowllin Borges, who has played five games for the national team since Stimac’s arrival, feels the Croat has helped him improve his defensive side of the game. “I have played in the No. 6 position in most games under Stimac and he has really helped me learn how to play in that role. Working with him has helped me improve my defensive abilities and my positioning. His style of play requires us to have ball possession, so I’ve learnt how to create space for others and be available for players to pass me the ball,” he says.
Another Mumbai City midfielder, Raynier Fernandes, who made his debut under Stimac, provided insights on the coach’s preparations ahead of a camp: “Unlike club football, we don’t have as much time in the national team fold. We have 15-day camps usually, so it gets difficult at times. In order to make it easier, the coach sends us videos to show us formations, what formation we should play and how we should adapt to that system so that we can be prepared when we come to the camp. That’s one thing I like because it’s like going to an exam — he gives us the notes and we just have to study and then go and perform. It feels great for me because you know how much the coach wants us to improve and he’s doing everything he can to help us perform well.”
An attacking midfielder, Raynier had to don a more defensive role in the national team setup, which the 25-year-old says he enjoys. “I am mostly an attacking player, but in his system, I play in the same position as Rowllin. It was new to me, but I adapted to it and it felt great. He’s not a coach who abuses or shouts when someone makes a mistake in training or in the game — he motivates us and gives us confidence. Whatever he teaches us is simple and effective. He really motivates all the young players so that we do better each day. You feel very motivated to play when you train under such a top-level coach,” he says.
When Stimac named his first probables squad in over a year , he introduced 12 new faces with several youngsters receiving callups. Hyderabad FC’s Akash Mishra, 19 years old, and Mohammad Yasir, 23, were among the new boys in a group that had an average age of 25.
For Akash, who described it as “a dream” to play alongside players he had grown up watching on TV, explained that the step up to the senior level was made easy by Stimac. “Having played under Manolo [Marquez] at Hyderabad FC, it didn’t feel different paying under Stimac. He sees both the senior and junior players as one. He tries to motivate us so the junior players who are coming in don’t feel bad if they make mistakes. In this camp, there were so many young players, we didn’t feel the pressure of playing in a senior team. During the half-time of matches, he ensures we don’t feel the negative pressure of being a goal down. He pushes you and asks us to go out there and play,” he explained.
Yasir, a technically sound attacking midfielder, said, “It’s good to have a coach like him who wants us to play with the ball. It suits my game as well.”
The duo made their debuts in the creditable 1-1 draw against Oman in a friendly, but what followed was a trial by fire in the next game when India was hammered 6-0 by the United Arab Emirates on March 29.
Speaking about the game, Akash said, “Everyone was upset after the game because the match didn’t go according to plan. There was not much talk after the game. We had to leave for home the next day. The coach said if we have to plan something, we have to do it out on the field. If we are scared of the opponents, it’s not going to help.”
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