The Croatian has led the Blue Tigers to two wins and six draws from 15 games in over two years.

Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac has been handed a contract extension till September 2022. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) Technical Committee headed by Shyam Thapa on Monday met via video conference and made the decision.

The Croatian signed up as the head coach on 15 May, 2019. Under him, the Blue Tigers have played 15 games – winning two, drawing six and losing seven. This led us to analyze the reasons and effects of the one-year extension of his contract.

The debate below both supports (Punit Tripathi) and questions (Mrunal Nakshe) the extension. Read on.

The case for Igor Stimac’s new contract: Punit Tripathi

It’s simple. After fans calling out former manager Stephen Constantine’s style of play for years, the AIFF put into the hot-seat a man who at least asks his players to keep the ball down on the ground and play passes. This has seen the emergence of players such as Brandon Fernandes, who were criminally omitted despite having the wherewithal, until 2019. 

While chopping and changing too much isn’t a good thing, Stimac picks players who are in-form. A clear example of the same is the emergence of Glan Martins. In just one season, the FC Goa ace looks like a starter for the Blue Tigers. The hard-working midfielder lapped up the chances he got and made the defensive midfielder’s spot his own. 

Do you think that would’ve happened under Stimac’s predecessor? The Croatian plays to the strengths of his players. He doesn’t have a set XI even before looking at the roster. Also, the incumbent manager has created a line of young players ready to come on whenever necessary. India isn’t calling upon Jeje Lalpekhlua, Balwant Singh or Robin Singh. It has moved on to Manvir Singh, Liston Colaco and Ishan Pandita. 

In midfield, the emergence of Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Suresh Singh Wangjam and Lalengmawia shows that the manager is willing to take risks and develop players. This holds India’s future in good stead. These players, with experience under their belt, will become better in years to come.

India, under Stimac, may have drawn against Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but also held Qatar, the Asian champions, to a draw. That was no mean feat. The fact that several important players have been injured at key junctures during qualification can also not be ignored. 

The team may have lost a good number of games, but have qualified for the third round of AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers, third in the group, as expected. Not too bad for a manager who has flirted with multiple different formations in just over two years. Needless to say, he looks close to his starting XI and with a fit squad; India might well be playing a positive brand of football in the near future.

The case against Igor Stimac’s new contract: Mrunal Nakashe

Now that we have seen the arguments in favour of a new contract for Igor Stimac, let’s look at the flip side and outline the case against it:

1. The results

At its core, football is a a result business and its the metric where Stimac falls woefully short. In his two years at the helm, the Blue Tigers have scored 14 goals and conceded 27. Under Stimac the team did finish third in their FIFA World Cup Qualifying group, but this must be put into context.

India, on many occasions, failed to convert their dominance into goals. The team often relied on set-pieces to score late goals and eke out results. This is borne out by the woeful record of having scored just four goals from open play under Stimac. The big picture is that this was one of the easiest groups the Blue Tigers had received in many cycles of qualifying, and a record of a seven points from eight games is hardly anything to write home about. Indeed, the true context of India’s term under Stimac, lies in the solitary win in four games against SAFF rivals Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

2. A change in philosophy

One of Igor Stimac’s job remits when he took the job in the summer of 2019 was to imbibe a more attractive style of play in the national team. The jury is very much out on whether he has succeeded in this regard. While there is no doubt that the team have endeavoured to pass the ball along the ground, they’ve done it with sporadic success, at best. Many players still lack confidence on the ball. They seem to run out of ideas in the final third and goalscoring remains a big problem. These problems are due in no small part to the Creation;s constant chopping and changing of the XI.

Indeed, Stimac has used multiple formations and failed to field the same XI in any two consecutive games in his spell in-charge. Exactly how the players are supposed to develop the chemistry and understanding of movements required to successfully implement a possession-based approach, in such an environment is anyone’s guess.

3. A lack of ambition

Above all, this decision shows the lack of ambition on the part of the AIFF. The governing has often shown a liking for the status quo and this is one such example. Having performed relatively above expectations at the AFC Asian Cup 2019, it is important for the Blue Tigers to qualify once again for the 2023 edition in order to build on those gains. Based on the body of evidence that is before us, there is little confidence that Stimac is the right man to guide the team in the the upcoming qualifiers. As such, this was a time to pause, take stock and say that the performances over the last two years haven’t been good enough.

Indeed, it was a time to correct course and make a fresh start. Instead, the AIFF have decided to play safe, thereby showing a lack of courage to make the tough call. Stimac’s new contract runs through to September 2022. In the final reckoning, his tenure will be shaped by the upcoming games. In the event that Sunil Chhetri and Co. fail to make it to Beijing, the Croatian will deservedly get most of the flak. But, we will also look back on this decision of the AIFF and the missed opportunity.

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