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Drastic changes needed for me to stay: India coach Igor Stimac

After the final flourish against Hong Kong to win the Asian Cup Group D, India head coach Igor Stimac decided to shoot from the lip. Stimac said he has huge plans for India but will continue in the job, “at a salary lower than my market price”, only if certain conditions are met.

“Some things will need to change drastically. In the future, if I am here, the league will need to stop when I say, for as many days as I think is needed for the national team to prepare to go higher. And players who are chosen by us, they will have to play at the clubs,” Stimac, whose contract runs out in September, said after Tuesday’s 4-0 win helped India qualify to the Asian Cup finals. This is their fifth finals berth and for the first time in two successive editions.

“We are eight to 10 years late in our development programme, eight to 10 years behind top eight Asian countries. How are we going to get there? So let’s wake up.”

Though the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has not set dates for the Asian Cup finals after China opted out of hosting it in June 2023, Stimac’s comment might cause a kerfuffle in the All India Football Federation, now run by a committee of administrators, the company that runs Indian Super League (ISL), India’s apex league, and possibly among I-League clubs too.

Not getting more time with players is the pet peeve of national team coaches but where Stimac sought to differentiate between India and the developed football world is the necessity for his players to be together to produce the kind of performance that fetched three successive wins in a crucial competition. Like in the 2021 SAFF Championship, which India won under him, Stimac said the performance in the final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers improved with every game.

“Everybody was expecting us to win so we need to be modest here. But what is spectacular here is the performance. The way the boys were aggressive when needed; the way they were patient when needed; the way they were counter-attacking when needed; the way they were doing middle and high press when needed. That was impressive… That’s clearly telling you that these boys deserve more time together and, of course, if I am there, I won’t let them lower their level,” he said.

To that end, Stimac said it is “important” for him to know what his players are doing at the clubs. “For me it is important to be in connection with club coaches to provide individual working plans for the players to advance their game,” he said, after mentioning that “ISL has helped us in many ways” and that he has good relations with “most managers in ISL.”

And with his players. “These boys are the best thing to make rhapsody of football in India,” he said. The most rewarding thing about nearly three years as head coach was “the trust I got from my players.” Stimac said with all that was going on—the pandemic, the court order on AIFF and criticism of the team—“if I felt at any point that my players have stopped following what we do, I would have gone home.

“And I feel sorry that some people were presenting that I am here for some contract, that I am trying to save my job. What job? I came here for less salary than my market price. I didn’t want to discuss with anyone who was offering me better jobs. Coach was never the problem in this country. You should talk about other things.”

Among them is the need to make I-League an all-Indian affair so that more centre-backs, attacking midfielders and strikers come through. “That’s the next step we need to do if India as a country needs to go forward,” said Stimac.

The parting shot was on the developments that led to the AIFF officials being removed. “For such an important tournament, was this the time to do this? Was anybody thinking how that could affect the dressing room and the players? I am not getting into who is right and who is wrong. It is not my job. I am just saying about timing. Nothing would have happened if they were waiting for three more weeks after having waited so many years,” he said.

Through comments most of which were hard truth, Stimac’s stand was reminiscent of Bob Houghton ahead of the 2011 Asian Cup. After assuring qualification, Houghton, according to those in charge of AIFF then, too had sought to renegotiate his deal. With the players backing him solidly—Sunil Chhetri still keeps in touch with him—AIFF, wary of a public outcry, had agreed. Over the next few months we will know if it will be any different this time.

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