There seems to be a clear disconnect between what India football coach Igor Stimac says and what he does. He claims to say it like it is, but often one is left to wonder if there is a hint of theatrics.
Take for example his outburst after India were humbled 3-0 by Qatar in their Preliminary Rd 2 qualifiers for the 2026 Fifa World Cup in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday.
“Knowing that we’re not going to get enough time for the Asian Cup, I don’t consider the Asian Cup such an important tournament for us,” he said.
Thank you, Bhubaneswar for all your support tonight 💙
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) November 21, 2023
That sentence sent shockwaves through the Indian footballing fraternity. Stimac tried to justify his statement by saying:
“I don’t want my players to get injured – that’s all I’m going to take care of. Because three games against such big opponents like Australia, Uzbekistan and Syria – we might do something well and we’re going to fight definitely, we’re going to leave everything on the pitch – but I’m not worried about that. I need to make sure that we get enough points in our group for the World Cup qualifiers, so we make sure that we have another five, six home games in the third round here. And that will be a huge benefit for Indian football for the future. So, let’s stop talking about the Asian Cup.”
Since the time India qualified for the Asian Cup, to be held in January, the whole focus of the national team has been on that competition. The tournaments they’ve played — and won — at home this year, were supposed to be preparation for the ultimate goal that was the Asian Cup.
Stimac’s initial contract in fact was based around the Asian Cup, with an extension depending on India’s performance at the continental showpiece.
Not wanting to wait for the Asian Cup to know his fate, Stimac reportedly told All India Football Federation (AIFF) to either renew his contract before the tournament, or let him go. Not wanting to disturb the momentum, the AIFF offered the Croat a contract extension last month.
Point of contention
The only wish Stimac hasn’t got, which he has been insistent about from the start, is a long preparatory camp before the Asian Cup. He wanted the Indian Super League (ISL) to have a break in order to release players for a national camp. The dates obviously would have been outside the Fifa window.
ISL clubs were reluctant to release players if the league was on and the organisers decided against having a break, something that infuriated Stimac, but he knew that it wasn’t in his control. So what does he do? He says that the one competition that the country has been looking forward to isn’t a priority for him.
Does his complaint hold any water though?
His assertion that 12-13 days are barely enough is fair and we’ve seen how well India can perform when they are together for a long period of time. But to expect clubs to send their best players while the league is on is a bit unrealistic.
To Stimac’s credit, he has put together a robust team, capable of putting up a fight against the best in Asia. The away win over Kuwait in the first match of this qualifying campaign is testament to the work he and his team have put in. And because of that, the team has shown that they can switch to his style of play without much preparation.
It’s not like India are expected to top their group at the Asian Cup. India are not likely to beat Australia, who are miles ahead. Uzbekistan also have been on an upswing while Syria will also be a good test.
What is expected from Stimac’s boys though is showing their quality on the Asian stage, wowing the fans with some great football and basically making the Indian audience fall in love with the team. Competing against top teams and, maybe, getting a positive result or two is bound to create excitement among fans which will spur the growth of the sport in the country. So to dismiss such a major tournament as “not a priority” seems quite absurd.
Focus on Fifa World Cup qualifiers
Stimac said that his priority has shifted from the Asian Cup to the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. But in what was perhaps India’s toughest test at home, against Asian champions Qatar, he chose to rest his No.1 goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, and try out out-of-form midfielder Udanta Singh in place of the in-form Mahesh Singh, clearly showing there’s a disconnect between what he says and what he does.
If that was not all, he took potshots against those in the federation saying, “If the people who are around us want us to do better, they need to improve much more than us”.
Stimac’s frank assessment is bound to ruffle a few feathers, but his priorities have changed too.