The tactician also spoke about skipper Sunil Chhetri.
The journey of Igor Stimac as the manager of the Indian national team has been a rollercoaster ride. The Croatian sustained a lot of criticism in the early and mid-parts of his term. He wasn’t helped by the Covid-19 pandemic impacting football as well. Nor did the Indian football system prioritizing the leagues ahead of national duty do him any favours.
By winning the SAFF Championship after the initial hiccup and helping India qualify for the AFC Asian Cup 2023, he has won over the fans. Recently, Stimac joined Khel Now’s Ashish Negi in our ‘Beyond the Scores’ podcast to speak about the national team.
Indian team – Selection Strategy
Speaking about his mindset for selecting the Indian squad after taking over from Stephen Constantine, he said, “I spotted the important part of our squad – the spinal part of the team with goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu there, Sandesh Jhingan in the middle of defence and Sunil Chhetri up-front. But apart from these three, I spotted two brilliant guys with great energy and great speed, as well as a third one with great technique. The last one I mentioned is Anirudh Thapa and the two are Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh.
“I could see them as the main point of focus for the future and open the door for all others, especially to the boys from the U-17 World Cup project, which I found to be very ambitious generation, very talented and with a different mindset from the players we had until then. These are players who are fearless, who are expressing themselves in a different way and players who didn’t mind who they played against. That is what you need in football, a positive mindset gives you more possibility to win the games,” he added.
Giving chances to snubs under previous coach
The Croatian gaffer also added about how he wanted to give chances to those players snubbed under Constantine. He explained, “I forgot to mention that I didn’t only watch the Asian Cup games and games prior to that of the boys who performed well in the I-League and ISL. I also read many articles and I also wanted to know the public opinion. I wanted to find out which players the public didn’t agree with during the Stephen Constantine era.
He quipped, “I saw that Rahul Bheke was mentioned a lot, as well as Brandon Fernandes, and why these guys aren’t with the team. That was a clear sign for me that I needed to give chances to these players and find out personally about why they weren’t playing for the national team. Of course, every coach has a different opinion about playing style and his methods in training, what kind of players they prefer, but having these players and giving the chance to them, I was really happy about giving them a chance.”
Integrating more young and technical players into the squad
Stimac also spoke about the goals he had for the national team and integrating more technically gifted, younger players to his squad. He revealed, “When I started my job three years ago, we set up the short-term and long-term goals. Of course, the short-term goal was to change the philosophy of the game – switching from us chasing the game to having more ball possession.
“This obviously was at the start of the process, first you need to select proper players for this kind of a style, then you need to make sure your selection was good, and then you need to work with these players to find the best 15-16 players who will be the core of the squad. Then you need to prepare for challenges,” he added.
The long-term goal
Igor Stimac shed light on the long-term objective. He asserted, “The long-term goal was to open the door widely to the youngsters of the 2017 U-17 World Cup squad. We wanted to use every opportunity and chance to give them exposure, even if it meant suffering through that process. But we needed to make sure that they would settle well for the first two to three years of our work, and then we can set about our future. That’s where we stand now. It was a long process.
“Even Mr. Constantine, in his first two years, was opening the door for new players and giving chances to them and after that, he settled with the team. And that’s how it works in football. When you are working with a core for a long time, it’s much easier. If you follow football, you’d see that it took Jurgen Klopp three years to settle down with his Liverpool team. But that’s a club, he’s working with the players for 12 months, and he’s got a budget, he’s got a possibility to sign players he wants – which is not the case with the national team. You are given the tools and you don’t have others,” he opined.
Major changes for planning future games
Igor Stimac also pointed out some major changes that must happen in planning the national team’s games. He claimed, “Of course, there were some good things which I found out. But a short season is a handicap for our players because the time of training is too long. They are not supervised properly and you are never sure what kind of individuals work every day and the body isn’t used for a long-term process. We will have some real problems now going forward, I’ll tell you.
“We’re going to be at a point when the players get exposed to 50 games per season, but are their bodies prepared for that? Some of them will fall down, some will lose the doubt. But another thing which was a good thing for me last season was that the domestic season was done by March. As a national coach I’ll have more exposure to work with the players throughout April, May and that’ll be good for the qualifiers in June. So when the season drags on for eight months, I won’t be happy with that. But I won’t have problems as a national team coach if my players are under eight months of training and playing competitive games regularly,” he added.
The Sunil Chhetri craze
Igor Stimac also insisted that Sunil Chhetri alone should not be credited for the success of the national team. Those around him had equal share in it. He stated, “You could clearly see in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in Kolkata that we didn’t suffer when we took Sunil (Chhetri) off. We scored goals from each position. All the players playing up-front enjoyed the game. They came to attack from everywhere against Afghanistan and Hong Kong. How Ashique (Kuruniyan), Sahal (Abdul Samad), Liston (Colaco) and Ishan (Pandita) played was amazing.
“We don’t need to mention how important Sunil is to us. But we also have to appreciate the players who are preparing the goals for him. Because it isn’t Sunil who is putting crosses to himself. It isn’t him who is making build-up from the back and coming in from the wide positions to ensure that Sunil receives the ball in the box and scores the goals. So let’s appreciate the wider picture and those who are working hard to help him score goals. That’s what he wants – his teammates to be appreciated for the hard work they are doing. But it is not always the case,” he also added.
Possible method to develop U-23 players for international standards
Finally, the gaffer spoke about how the Indian youngsters can get more international experience as well as the development of the U-23 side. He explained, “How will you help in the development of young players if the entire U-23 team is part of the senior team already? The players who aren’t, need to be developed through their clubs. They are a part of their club’s system and competitions. Their clubs need to release them. These guys are probably on the bench and taking part of some minutes on the pitch.
“They are playing in the shadow of the important players of the club. But if you think about releasing them, we come back to the same issue of the senior Indian players who are regulars with the national team. We need to understand that exposure for the senior and U-23 teams need to be decided at the highest level,” he added.
The words of Carlos Queiroz and Indian football
The gaffer ended with a story about ex-Iran manager Carlos Queiroz . He mentioned how that can inspire Indian football. He said, “When I say this, I’ll tell you the story about Iranian football. When Carlos Queiroz went there, and I know this because I worked in Iran. I mention Iran because they are among the strongest Asian sides with Qatar, South Korea, etc. This isn’t happening just this year but since the last 10 years. That’s continuity of good performances, success and participation in the World Cup.
Stimac started, “So this is what Quieroz told them. ‘If you need participation in the World Cup, I need at least two weeks of preparation for every friendly window. So the league needed to stop and the club coaches also needed to help. If you give them two weeks’ time to recover players from injuries and work on things which weren’t good in the previous games, they’ll be happy to do that. And doing so will also help the national team get enough time together.
“Carlos helped them qualify twice for the World Cup and they had a very good showing there too. When I talk about exposure, that involves the highest level of decision-making. If you say now that we need two to four months of exposure time, who will give you that? That isn’t really possible to expect. But in a country like India, that is the bare minimum. If we expect the team to do well and expect me as a coach to help them adapt to my ideas, then we’ll need that much of time to prepare,” he concluded.