Only recently did the Indian men’s football team qualify for the upcoming edition of the AFC Asian Cup, securing a berth for the fifth time in the history of the tournament. This is also the first time India have progressed to the final rounds in consecutive editions of the tournament.
Playing the qualifiers in Kolkata, India swatted away challenges from Cambodia, Afghanistan and Hong Kong, as fans rejoiced; at a time when administrative problems not only have led to the removal of some officials from the AIFF by the Supreme Court of India but also resulted in a FIFA delegation scheduling a visit to the country to take stock of the happenstance.
Clearly, not all is hunky dory in Indian football, and coach Igor Stimac, while acknowledging that, asserted that the focus has to be on getting the national team to do well. That is, if India wants to fall in love with football.
“ISL will not make India fall in love with Indian football. Only the national team will do that,” he said.
And India’s next port of call is the AFC Asian Cup
The AFC Asian Cup which was to be held in 2023 in China is now looking for a new venue and possibly a slight postponement from the original plan. Nonetheless, India has a task on their hands. So what does Stimac, whose contract is up for renewal in September, need?
“We have 2 FIFA windows, in September and March, which we need to use to organise 4 friendly games. We need to start organising them now because if not we will run out of teams to play with. What I need is 2 weeks of time to prepare the team for such games,” Stimac said during a frank press conference which did not have any one from AIFF’s media team present.
“To expect good games and solid performances from India when facing better ranked teams, because that’s the approach we have taken, similar kind of teams or better teams, then we need to prepare ourselves for such games. We can’t get players 3 days before the game and do miracles," he said.
“ISL season will finish mid-March and then there is the Super Cup. Before the Asian Cup finals we are going to need very similar time for preparation like we did this time (Qualifiers in Kolkata) to make sure that we are well prepared and do well,” he went on to add.
But what about his contract renewal? The AIFF is currently run by a Committee of Administrators, of whom Dr SY Quraishi, the former chief election commissioner of the country and currently a member of the Supreme Court appointed CoA, feels there is enough time to iron out the matters of the contract.
While responding to that, Stimac seemed a little upset.
“It is a complete lack of knowledge about football. It is not the duration of the contract, the work starts in the pre-season. It is important to understand that the football calendar is different from the normal calendar. The employment is generally done by June or latest by July. I hope someone explains to him how things work in football,” the 1998 World Cup Bronze medallist said.
“I am very committed to AIFF. We finished three years of work, qualified for the Asian Cup and I would love to take this team and prove to everyone that India can do better.”
‘Expected a Different Situation’
Stimac, who didn’t hold back during the interaction, said that he expected a very different situation to what the reality was when he took up the job.
"When I was appointed as coach (in May 2019), I was quite sure that India will have future as a football nation but I knew it will be a difficult path.”
"When I took the job, I expected a far different situation," he said. "I expected everyone to be committed and ready to help the national team rise up. But some of the parties were concentrating on their own projects which was surprising, some of them didn't understand what that means and how long it takes for the national team to rise up."
The Croat, who said he had kept away from the media because he had little option before this, didn’t name names when probed on it. When the Croat was asked if there was anything he’d have done differently in his 36+ months in India. Pat came the reply, "would have handled discussions prior to signing contract with AIFF differently".
The Croat also spoke at length about a much discussed topic in Indian football – the domestic calendar. While he noted that if changes in the league structure (3+1 foreign players rule) had come in 2 years ago, then we’d be in a better position overall.
The former defender went on to explain that Indian football needed a season that would see not more than 6 weeks or so of holiday.
"After agreeing (with all the stakeholders) that the main problem is a short season and not enough games, we tried to change the structure of competition. We know why that didn't happen."
“India needs a longer season with more games. Like for 10-11 months. Young players need to be nurtured and players should get 6-8 weeks of holiday. That is enough for them if we want to become the best team in Asia,” he asserted.
“The calendar of football should not depend on broadcast and other things. Our players need to play at least 50 matches,” he added.
And while that is with regards to how much the players play, Stimac also didn’t hesitate to take head on the fact that the scheduling depends largely on the IPL which is broadcast by the same channel. Only recently were the IPL media rights sold for a whopping Rs 48,930 crore.
“Things need to be sorted out about the football calendar, which is still being adjusted with regards to IPL and broadcasting… This needs to stop if we want to make football great in India. Football calendar should not depend on other things,” he said.
“India is blessed to have a sport as popular as cricket but shouldn’t be afraid to have another sport becoming as popular. And to do so, they need to open the door to football. Otherwise, it will not happen. Football shouldn’t suffer because of cricket. Cricket shouldn't fear football,” Stimac said.
Suggested Changes to Domestic Set-Up
According to Stimac, the ISL, currently India’s top league, should not have less than 18 teams and must mandatorily have promotion and relegation as well.
That apart, he wants that I-League teams should not have any foreigners at all. He believes that massive restructuring is necessary to ensure players remain under (the right kind of) pressure throughout the season.
"It needs to be much more (of a) challenge for players than (a) comfort," he says. "To go higher as a national team, we need players who will compete every day at their best. We cannot have such a short league without enough clubs to compete. And we need to be quicker (about making these changes).”
He, however, is happy to see that there have been some changes already, even if the pace is slower than what he’d like. The new calendar with the ISL pre-season kicking off in July, with the Durand Cup before the season starts and the Super Cup (and Santosh Trophy) at the end.
"It'll bring players to nearly 40 games a season, plus national team games," he says.