The earlier we forget these wins and move on, the better: Stimac

Indian football’s famous Croatian head coach gives a reality check ahead of Asian Cup, FIFA Qualifiers

Indian national football team coach Igor Stimac (Photo: AIFF)
Indian national football team coach Igor Stimac (Photo: AIFF)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The last three weeks had been a happy one for Indian football with two back-to-back titles but the man who had been at the helm of affairs feels it’s time to ‘forget’ about it and move on. Igor Stimac, India’s illustrious Croatian head coach, believes that the kind of opposition coming up next is far tougher and preparation for them should start at the earliest.

‘’Over the next few days, I will sit and analyse the performance, but we have forgotten about these results quickly. We cannot think as football followers and then be brought back to the ground again. We have to work really hard for the challenges we are going to face next will be very different,’’ remarked Stimac, the member of Davor Suker’s bronze medalist team in 1998 World Cup as well as a former national coach of his country.

Even as the party had begun after India’s final win against Kuwait in the SAFF Cup final on Tuesday, July 4, Stimac left for Croatia for a break before they embarked on the next phase of preparations – with the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers later this year and the Asian Cup in January, the two Herculean assignments in store. There are a few tournaments in the build-up though like the King’s Cup, the Merdeka Cup and the Asian Games (U-23) before Stimac’s contract runs out in February, 2024.

Igor Stimac during his time in the Croatia national football team (Photo: AIFF)
Igor Stimac during his time in the Croatia national football team (Photo: AIFF)

Speaking to National Herald in a zoom interview, the 55-year-old felt that while he was vindicated that Sunil Chhetri & Co has started producing the results. He called for support from the powers-that-be for the process he had been trying to put in place over the last four years.

Was it the convincing manner in which India qualified in the final round for back-to-back Asian Cup in Kolkata last year, the start of a turnaround? ‘’It didn’t happen just like that as the process began four years back,’’ Stimac added, ‘’We went for radical changes in the style of play and had to search for technically different players – using the first two years wisely to create a pool of players. Now, there is a pool of 30-35 players among whom the difference is not much and with cover for injuries.”

‘’We devoted time to challenge the players to their limits with strength and conditioning – hence you can see them not tiring after playing 120 minutes or not suffering any major injuries or cramps through the match. We could deliver what we promised over the last four years. However, we are still far away from the level where we can beat opposition like Australia, a regular at World Cups, Uzbekistan or Syria (other teams in their group in Asian Cup) and have to start planning soon for that,’’ said Stimac, who was also an integral part of the U-20 world champion team for undivided Yugoslavia.

SAFF champions Indian national football team (Photo: AIFF)
SAFF champions Indian national football team (Photo: AIFF)

It’s a reality check that the fiery Croat wants to give to the establishment and fans, while Stimac also did not pull back any punches about his experience of being in the hot seat so far. A string of poor results between 2019 and 2021, coupled with him trying out a series of new faces, earned him a lot of flak in the initial years.

‘’See, if you as a country have contracted me for the wealth of experience that I have, I presume it’s with an aim to take the country through the doors of world football. I didn’t expect all the stakeholders to understand the technicalities, but I wanted them to be supportive of the process that I wanted to follow. We are taking the path which has to see a lot of sacrifice, ups and downs to change things,’’ remarked the coach.

As of now, Stimac is waiting for the schedule of Indian Super League (ISL), country’s premier league – where his key players will be exposed to injuries and fatigue – something which can pose a tricky challenge in terms of preparation of the ‘Blue Tigers.’ It had been an unusually long season for the national team players – who are scheduled to play an unprecedented 18-20 internationals during the year.

‘’The games are certainly helping, but we need to play more against tougher opposition. The biggest gap between ISL and international matches is the pace and intensity of the latter and the players have got to get used to it,’’ observed Stimac.

The draw for the World Cup qualifiers, which to be held on July 27, is expected to have India in Pot 2 because of a better ranking this time – which implies that there could be fewer top teams in their group. Asked whether it’s going to make any difference in their journey in the qualifiers, Stimac said: ‘’Be it Pot 2 or Pot 3, it’s not a problem. I respect everyone but on the football field, I fear no one. It will be nice to be on Pot 2 but then, you have to still come out with 11 boys and win the game.’’

During the SAFF Championship, Stimac had faced both expulsion and fine for losing his cool on the technical area - but says he is not going to change his style. ‘’They are my family,’’ he said, adding: ‘’They are like my sons whom I will do everything to protect. It’s my job to make sure they respect others but should also be passionate and patriotic while wearing the country’s shirt – you need it to succeed at the top level.’’

A hard taskmaster and yet fiercely protective of his boys—that’s the quintessential Stimac for you. It also perhaps gives one an inkling as to what makes Croatia such unyielding opponents on the global stage!

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