Asian Games 2023: Absolute warriors, Igor Stimac calls his 'boys' after exit

AIFF ready to renew contract for India's Croatian head coach, who is also on Bosnia's radar for a similar role with their national team

Indian football team line up for their pre-quarters match in China (photo: Igor Stimac/ X)
Indian football team line up for their pre-quarters match in China (photo: Igor Stimac/ X)

NH Sports Bureau

It was no surprise that India’s football campaign at the Asian Games ended after a 2-0 loss to Saudi Arabia on Thursday, 28 September. But we were not quite disgraced.

Sunil Chhetri & co. made the last-16 stage of the Games after 13 years, with a ragtag team too, and they will be returning home secure in the thought that head coach Igor Stimac’s contract is set to be renewed.  

The Croatian world cupper, who is reportedly being courted by the Bosnian football federation for their national coach’s role, will be offered a new contract as soon as he returns to New Delhi. Stimac had sought an extension of his contract earlier, ahead of India’s new cycle of FIFA 2026 World Cup qualifiers, as his term would end after the Asian Cup in February 2024. 

‘’We are renewing his agreement,’’ AIFF president Kalyan Choubey confirmed in a message to a query by National Herald.

While the fine print is being worked out over the next few days, it’s now clear that the federation is opting for continuity — though we heard the AIFF was peeved with the coach’s frequent outbursts in the media over the ISL (Indian Super League) clubs’ refusal to release players for the multi-discipline Asian Games. 

Things came to such a pass that the AIFF issued a show-cause notice to Stimac for stepping over the line, even as the run-up to the Games was clouded with uncertainty over team selection. The list changed several times — and Stimac went on record saying only one of his original pick made it to the Games eventually.

However, the coach’s reply ahead of India's trip to Hangzhou diffused the crisis as he headed to China with a hastily cobbled team and took on the hosts with not a single practice session under its belt.  

The Blue Tigers nevertheless started on a promising note against China by going into the break 1–1, but were eventually routed 5–1. They took the demoralising defeat in stride to come back and beat Bangladesh 1–0 and then drew with Myanmar 1–1 to qualify for the round of 16.

Running into Saudi Arabia, ranked 57th in the FIFA table, India finally went down 2–0 after keeping the first half goalless, however. 

Stimac, always the players’ man, said in a moving X post after the exit: ‘’As our Asian Games campaign comes to a close, I wanted to appreciate these absolute WARRIORS who gave it their all for our nation. New team that’s never played together before, zero practice sessions until after we qualified for the Round of 16 and fighting valiantly against quality opponents. Our boys fought through all adversity and gained vital experience, plus all my respect." 

Carrying on in the same thread, Stimac had a word for the fans too: ‘’To our fans, I see most of you understand what this team had to go through and have pushed us on regardless of the result. You deserve better, and you will get (it). I promise you that…’’ 

Stimac certainly has his heart in the right place.

He and the boys have their work cut out for them in the months ahead, with the Merdeka tournament preceding the FIFA World Cup qualifiers and then the Asia Cup in Doha in January–February. He is unlikely to back down on his demand for at least a three-week camp to prepare for the Asian Cup, though the ISL has kept only a two-week window as a break. 

India open their Asian Cup campaign against Australia on 13 January, then play Uzbekistan on 18 January before concluding the group league tie against Syria on 23 January. 

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