The Croatian head coach has talked a good game but two years on there’s little progress to discern.

On Monday the 29th of March, a relatively young Indian football team led by Igor Stimac suffered a humbling 6-0 defeat in a FIFA International Friendly against the United Arab Emirates. The lack of experience within the team notwithstanding, this was India’s heaviest defeat since a 9-1 mauling at the hands of Kuwait in November 2010. Englishman Bob Houghton was at the helm of the team that evening.

The Scene

In that span of over a decade, much water has flown under the bridge in Indian football. The team has since been through five head coaches, including current incumbent Igor Stimac. Whilst on the subject, it must be pointed out that the national team has had a checkered past with coaches from overseas. However, the one to make the most prominent mark yet has been Englishman Stephen Constantine.

Indian football team vs Thailand
India trounced Thailand 4-1 in their group stage game at the AFC Asian Cup in 2019

Indeed, the tactician took over the team in January 2015 in his second stint, ranked 171st in the world. He took the Blue Tigers to 96th in the FIFA Rankings in July 2017. However, his biggest high was qualification for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 and the group stage win over Thailand. To put things into context, there have been six editions of the competition since the turn of the century and India have qualified for just two.

When Stimac won the race to succeed Constantine in May that year, it is fair to say that Indian football was on the highest of highs. The cash-rich Indian Super League had completed its fifth season and continued to give a new generation of Indian players the chance to showcase their skills on the big stage. A new roadmap for Indian football had also been agreed and the domestic game was on the up. Indeed, the India job was reportedly coveted by some of the who’s who of international football, including former England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Early Months

In the early months of his tenure, the Croatian appeared to be on the right track. The team beat hosts Thailand in the King’s Cup in June in his first tournament. On the eve of the second iteration of the Intercontinental Cup the following month, he sounded a buoyant note. “We are on our way to becoming a strong force in Asia, once again,” he had said. Ironically, it was in that tournament in Ahmedabad that the first cracks began to emerge. Tajikistan and DPR Korea fairly smashed the team, before they salvaged a draw against Syria. This was followed by what has been a disappointing World Cup qualification campaign so far (3D, 2L). A long recess enforced by a global pandemic ensued to stop the Blue Tigers in their tracks, before they headed for these two games in Dubai.

In sport as in life, certain events provide for staging posts, points of reflection on what has gone in the past and that which is to come in the future. Two years into his reign at the helm of the national team, as the dust settles on the hammering against the UAE, Igor Stimac’s own staging post comes into view. It is important to point out that the Croat signed an initial two-year deal in the summer of 2019. While the tactician may well claim that he’s on a long-term project, his problem is that he’s in a results business. Indeed, the underlying stats of his time in-charge do not make for good reading.

In Numbers

Igor Stimac stat
Igor Stimac’s time as Indian football team head coach in numbers

Stimac has led the team from the sidelines in 12 games. Of these, the Blue Tigers have won just one outing, while drawing five and losing six. The solitary win came in the King’s Cup in Thailand against the hosts. Of the five draws, two were late rescue acts in World Cup Qualifying against Bangladesh (186) and Afghanistan (150). These were games that would have gone in the loss column, but for late set-piece goals from Adil Khan and Seiminlen Doungel respectively. Worryingly, the team have scored just 11 goals in these dozen games, while letting in 25. To put it more simply, that’s like starting every match with a 2+ goals handicap, a tall order for even the best teams in the world.

The introduction of a more attractive, attacking style of football was one of Stimac’s key selling points and remits. It is surprising than that Manvir Singh’s equalizer against Oman was India’s first goal from open play since July 2019. The last one came in the Intercontinental Cup against DPR Korea. Just for the record, that’s two goals from open play in the last nine outings. As far as possession is concerned, the team’s high watermark has been 71% (Bangladesh), their lowest 23% in the last game. Over the 12 games, the team have averaged an uninspiring 44% possession. The highest passing accuracy in a game has been 89% (Curacao).

The Issues

Team Selection

Growing the national pool of talent was a key theme for Stephen Constantine in his second spell in-charge. It’s one that his successor Stimac has chosen to carry forward. Indeed, the Croatian has handed 18 debuts in just 12 games, 10 of them coming in the recent game against Oman. It is safe to say that the tactician has never fielded the same XI in two successive games. A dozen games in, does he know his best XI when everyone is fit? You make up your own mind.

Formations & Tactics

While on the subject of knowing your best XI, it is perhaps pertinent to highlight that the tactician has utilized a minimum of four different formations. Here, the 4-2-3-1 has found favour six times. But, the 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 have also got a go twice. It is well-known that each of these formations, although only subtly different in structure, place significantly different demands on each position on the pitch.

For a team that is learning to pride itself on possession-based football, an issue of particular concern in the UAE debacle was the players’ lack of confidence on the ball. This was evident across the pitch, but was especially felt in midfield. Then again, it is hardly surprising to see players playing like a bunch of strangers on the pitch, given they have to play alongside different partners and in different roles every game. Developing combinations, partnerships and a seamless understanding of your teammates’ off-the-ball movements in certain situations are all key elements of successful passing football at any level. How can any of these develop with constant chopping and changing?

Missing In Action?

Igor Stimac
Igor Stimac in attendance during a game in ISL 2019-20

The question of how much time the head coach of the national team has spent in the country is an important one. Over the last couple of years, Igor Stimac has alternated between being in the stands, stints as a TV pundit and watching games from the comfort of his home in Eastern Europe. After the return of football with the ISL, he was seen around at a few games, at least in the first week of action. “I have watched every single (ISL) game,” he boasted during an interview with the Hindustan Times in January.

But, the fact of the matter remains that Stimac could have based himself in the country for the duration of the season. Indeed, a short flight from Goa would have taken him to West Bengal, the hub of the I-League this season. These were all choices open to the tactician, choices that he did not make. It’s worth pointing out that the Croatian eludes to watching every ISL game. Curiously the I-League does not find mention. Perhaps, it isn’t high on his list of priorities? We will return to the subject.

Courting Controversy

PIOs Argument

The clamour for the inclusion of People of Indian Origin in the national team is not new, but it has gained new momentum since Igor Stimac arrived. Indeed, when questioned about the draws against subcontinent oppositions in a recent interview, Stimac quoted, “Sometimes I get the impression that we have too much opinion of ourselves when it comes to opponents like Afghanistan or Bangladesh.” He then burst into a monologue highlighting how the Afghans in particular, had benefited from players plying their trade in European leagues, thanks to the country’s approach to allow citizens to hold dual passports. However, worth noting is the fact that as the undisputed heavyweights of SAFF, India have traditionally dominated these teams.

It’s Complicated

On the surface, this is a valid argument. However, the issue is far more complex. Under the current regulations, overseas nationals must give up their current passports to obtain an Indian one and thus become eligible to represent the country as naturalized citizens. It was a route taken by former I-League star Arata Izumi, who subsequently represented India nine times between 2013-2014. The process takes many years. But, let’s be blunt, players aren’t exactly queuing up to make that choice.

On the flip side, the decision to allow Indians to hold dual citizenship goes well beyond the national team, a sport or a bunch of sports. It is a matter of politics, of policy and one that will impact you, me and millions of other people. But, the Croatian is an EU national and comes from a place with a different worldview.

At any rate, the AIFF are better off investing their resources in laying stronger foundations within our borders. To put it kindly, their record in the realm of overseas scouting has been dubious. Do the names Sunny Dhaliwal and Namit Deshpande ring a bell? The former a goalkeeper and the latter a defender were part of India’s squad at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2017. The duo came from Canada and the USA respectively. Where are they now? Your guess is as good as ours.

I-League Criticism

Are players in the country’s second tier eligible for national selection? Are they getting a fair go? It is a question Igor Stimac and the AIFF must answer. “At the moment there is no such player (in I-League) who has quality to be able to join the national team. There is nothing to hide about it. All the best players from I-League are supposed to become part of ISL because they are all followed by ISL clubs scouting,” the coach stated after choosing his latest squad in March. In a similar time-frame, the Croat also added that he ‘didn’t have more time to watch I-League games’ before asserting that he believes ‘the base for Indian National Team is ISL.’

Bidyashagar Singh
Bidyashagar Singh won the I-League Golden Boot after scoring 12 goals in the 2020-21 I-League season

Ironically, Igor Stimac has bemoaned the lack of goalscorers in the domestic game for the longest time. With that said, will Bidyashagar Singh, the first Indian to win the I-League Golden Boot outright, get a go in the upcoming games? Watch this space. However, a fundamental question remains. What level of performance must players in the country showcase to crack into a team that has won one game in 12 in the last two years?

What Next For Stimac & National Team?

Sources close to the developments have told Khel Now that with his current deal set to end in May, Igor Stimac was offered and has accepted a short-term extension through to September of this year.

Interestingly, when groups were drawn for this phase of the joint-FIFA World Cup and Asian Cup Qualifiers, the minimum expectation from the Blue Tigers’ faithful was to finish third in the group. However, with three draws and two losses in five games, India’s World Cup Qualifying campaign lies in relative tatters. They should look to finish the ongoing round with some positive results, before focusing in earnest on qualification for the AFC Asian Cup 2023. A return to the continental extravaganza is vital for continued progress. This is especially so, to build on the strides made in 2019 and given that the country is bidding to host the event in 2027.

India will be playing their remaining qualifiers against Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Qatar in June. Should Igor Stimac get a vote of confidence for the medium term or be relieved of his duties following those games? Needless to say, the decisions Indian football’s top bosses make in the weeks and months to come will have far-reaching implications for the game in the country.

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