Igor Stimac's tenure: Lofty dreams yet unfulfilled promises

AIFF had decided to terminate the services of Head Coach Igor Stimac after India failed to enter the third round of FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Update: 2024-06-18 12:56 GMT

Igor Stimac (Photo credit: AIFF media)

On Monday, the AIFF confirmed via a press release that they are terminating the contracts of the Indian Men's football team head Coach Igor Stimac with immediate effect noting the disappointing outcome of the Senior Men’s National Team's FIFA World Cup 2026 qualification campaign.

With the Croatian coach being the talk of the town, let's take a look at Igor Stimac’s career, both as a player and as a manager.

Early days as a footballer

The Croatian defender made 53 appearances for the national team and scored two goals. He was also a part of the Croatian side that won the bronze medal at the FIFA World Cup in 1998. Štimac was also a member of the Yugoslavia under-20 team that won the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship playing four games and scoring two goals in the tournament.

In club football, he had a successful career playing more than 300 games and scoring 17 goals as a defender for various clubs including Hajduk Split, Cadiz, Derby County, and West Ham United.

Managerial Career Before India

Stimac started his managerial career in 2001, taking charge of the Hajduk Split football academy while also acting as the club's sports director. In 2004–05 he replaced the Head Coach of Blaž Slišković, for the last 10 games and went on to win the championship for the side.

Stimac spent a few months in 2006 managing Croatian first-division side Cibalia and was then appointed as the head coach of the Croatian club NK Zagreb. Stimac managed to save Zagreb from getting relegated to the lower division and left the club at the end of the season.

In 2012, after being appointed as the new Croatia national football team manager, Štimac made his managerial debut with Croatia in a friendly international match against Switzerland. Croatia, however, ended up losing the game 4-2. However following a few months of poor performances by the side in the World Cup qualifiers, Stimac decided to leave the National team. Despite all the criticism, he took Croatia to fourth place in the FIFA Men’s World Rankings during his tenure.

Journey with the Indian football team

After brief managerial stints in Croatia and Iran, Igor Stimac replaced Stephen Constantine as the head coach of the Indian national football team on May 15, 2019. Stimac’s first campaign with India was the Kings Cup in 2019 where India lost 3-1 to Curacao.

He awarded six players their international debuts during this match. In the tournament, India finished third in the group after defeating Thailand 1-0. The Indian national football team won their first silverware under Igor Stimac by clinching the SAFF Championship 2021 title. The Blue Tigers had an unbeaten campaign and only conceded two goals.

During the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Stimac was widely appreciated for the performances of the team when India managed a famous 0-0 draw against Qatar when they were at the top of their game.

Despite this stellar result, India’s poor run against lower-ranked teams ended the hopes of qualifying for the Qatar World Cup when the Blue Tigers finished third with only 6 points, drawing to Oman, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

Under Štimac, India managed to reach the 2023 AFC Asian Cup finals in Qatar after dominating performances over Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong. This was the first time India qualified twice in a row for the AFC Asian Cup. In June 2023 India won their second Intercontinental Cup under Štimac's leadership, after overcoming Lebanon 2–0 in the final at the Kalinga Stadium.

India went on a 15-game unbeaten run at home and won against Kuwait in the shootouts of the final, making Štimac the first foreign head coach to win back-to-back SAFF Championship titles.

India then had a disappointing campaign in the AFC Asian Cup 2023, where India lost all matches in the group stage against Australia (0–2), Uzbekistan (0–3), and Syria (0-1).

India was the worst ranked according to points table and goal difference in the competition. India also failed to qualify for the third round of the FIFA Worldcup Asian Qualifiers, after suffering bitter draws to low ranked teams Afghanistan and Kuwait. India finished third in the group stages after suffering a controversial loss against Qatar which ultimately led the AIFF to sack Stimac.

During his managerial career, Štimac has led India to three titles in 2023, the most ever won by India in a calendar year, and managed to take India to a FIFA ranking of less than 100. In his 5 years of managerial career in India spanning 53 games, the Blue Tigers have managed to win 19, drew 14, and Lost 20 games with a win percentage of 35.8%. He is also the second longest-serving coach of the men’s Indian football team after Stephen Constantine who led the Blue Tigers for 60 matches in two different spells.

Under Stimac's tenure, the Blue Tigers showed moments of promise but struggled with consistency in crucial matches. In his tenure as the manager, many of Stimac’s interviews contained controversial statements which always kept him under scrutiny from the federation.

Despite the successes, inconsistent performances in crucial matches, and the failure leading to an early exit for the Croatian manager, the foundations laid during his tenure will pave the way for future successes on global stages.

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