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Indian Football's Igor Stimac dilemma: Results, style, and accountability

In the second part of The Bridge's 'Let's Talk about the Future of Indian Football' series, we make an in-depth assessment of the tenure of the national men's team head coach Igor Stimac.

Indian Footballs Igor Stimac dilemma: Results, style, and accountability

Igor Stimac hails the Minerva Academy of Ranjit Bajaj


Aswathy Santhosh

Updated: 22 Feb 2024 10:19 AM GMT

In the world of football, the phrase "trust the process" is often thrown around, but how long does this process truly take? And how long does it take to see signs of improvement?

These questions are particularly relevant when looking at the trajectory of the Indian men's national football team. In the second part of The Bridge's 'Let's Talk About Future of Indian Indian football' series, we make an in-depth assessment of the tenure of the national men's team head coach Igor Stimac.

The numbers: Igor Stimac vs Stephen Constantine

Under the guidance of Igor Stimac, the Indian team has so far played 50 games, with 19 wins, 13 draws, and 18 defeats coming in these games.

Notably, the team's performance at the recently concluded AFC Asian Cup saw them finish 24th out of 24 teams, with no goals, points, or wins to their name.

Comparatively, under Stephen Constantine, whom Stimac succeded, in his second tenure (2015-2019), India played 43 matches, securing 24 wins, 6 draws, and 13 losses.

They netted 75 goals, conceded 44, and kept 18 clean sheets. Their Asian Cup journey in 2019 saw a promising 4-1 victory against Thailand, but their hopes were dashed by a stoppage-time penalty against Bahrain.

Style vs Results

The debate between style and results is ever-present in football. Constantine was known for leveraging the strengths of Indian players, while Stimac attempted to introduce a more defined playing style. However, India is not yet ready to fully embrace an advanced game style, especially possession-based football.

While India has shown flashes of success with possession against lower-ranked teams, they struggle to maintain possession against more dominant sides.

This highlights the importance of understanding our limitations and playing to our strengths, especially when facing superior opponents. Results in tournaments like the Asian Cup, Asian Games, and World Cup qualifiers ultimately determine success.

The blame game

Let's analyse some of Stimac's quotes and statements over the years. While he's known for his convincing abilities, it's important to examine whether his actions align with his words.

1) "You all know why we are not scoring goals at the international level. It will happen when we start having Indian players in center-forward positions (at club level). Only then we’re going to have many more goal scorers for the national team."

While this statement seems valid, the question arises: Will Stimac actually give a young striker a chance instead of Sunil Chhetri, at least in SAFF tournaments and friendlies?

There is an exceptional talent in Sivasakthi Narayanan, a 22-year-old striker with Bengaluru FC. How many senior national team call-ups did he receive? Instead of putting all the blame on the clubs, Stimac should take some responsibility.

2) "How many centre-forwards do we have in India? Hardly any. So, where do you think I’m going to find them from, Croatia?"

This statement from the national team head coach is quite surprising. It's not hard to identify one or two with potential in India itself if he watches the games closely. What it requires is intent that Stimac hardly showed.

3) "I didn't get time to watch I-League"

This was one of his most controversial statements. Many national team coaches worldwide make an effort to watch matches in different divisions, even in lower leagues. Since Stimac believes ISL is the base of Indian national football, how many ISL games has the Indian national team coach attended?

4) "How can we expect our national team to excel when our best ISL teams are struggling in the AFC Champion League and facing defeats in the AFC Cup against teams from Bangladesh and Maldives?"

Following the Asian Cup, Igor Stimac expressed frustration towards ISL club coaches. However, amidst his rant against ISL clubs and coaches, another question arises: how many in-form players from the current season are even making it to the national team probables?

5) "The boys didn’t perform up to the level I know they are capable of, but I know they gave it their all and I’m proud of them."

This social media post by Stimac after India's Asian Cup exit speaks volumes. The coach did not take accountability for the disastrous campaign in Qatar, he instead held the players responsible for the team's dull show. Who is responsible for making the players perform their best? Not the national team coach according to Stimac.

His team selection has also come under scrutiny. Following the loss against Qatar in the FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifiers in November 2023, Stimac mentioned Udanta Singh had exhausted his chances in the national team.

When there have been wingers in better form in the ISL over the past 2-3 seasons, Udanta continues to receive chances. Rohit Kumar is another example, illustrating potential biases in team selection.

These examples are just a few instances of many such comments made by the Croatian coach.

Blind trust in Igor Stimac

The performance of India under Igor Stimac has been promising in regional tournaments, but disappointing on larger stages and against stronger opponents. While initially, giving him a one-year extension could have been more understandable considering the Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers, extending it till 2026 raises questions about Indian football officials' administrative acumen.

The lack of ambition is evident, especially with the timing of talks about grassroots development coinciding with the national team's struggles. Ironically, discussions about grassroots emerge only when the national team falters as it did during the Asian Cup.

It did more so recently because teams like Jordan and Mauritania in Asia and Africa, which were struggling to even find a place in the continental championships a few years ago, made a startling impact in recent tournaments.

While improving grassroots is crucial for any country's footballing progress, and giving a coach a longer run at the helm for gaining results is necessary to get positive results, it is also important to not invest time and money in the wrong place. India needs a coach who can show the national men's team a way forward, giving more importance to the players' strength, rather than someone who imposes alien formation on local players.

Our next episode is about AIFF and grassroots development, that's a topic for another discussion. Stay tuned for the third episode.

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