By Nilanjan Datta,
AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: Indian Senior Men’s National Team Head Coach Igor Stimac mentions that the two results against UAE – the one in the AFC Asian Cup (2019), and the recent International Friendly came under “very different circumstances.” In a candid chat, Stimac opens up about his philosophy of football and talks at length about experimentation, a settled first XI, the talented set-up, the path ahead, and much more. EXCERPTS:
In 2019 we lost 0-2 to UAE in Asian Cup. This time we lost 0-6. How do you describe that?
The two results come in very different circumstances. Apart from the fact that in both cases UAE won, we can’t compare those matches in any other segment. In 2019, both the teams (India and UAE) played in the groups stages of the AFC Asian Cup – the Continental Championship to which both teams had headed after having prepared for a long time. Both the teams came in with their best and most experienced players which was at their disposal.
In 2021, it was a friendly match which we used to check the strength of our new players against the best striking line-up of UAE that has been playing together for a long time. It is unusual and surprising that many are now trying to create a bad atmosphere around us.
What was the thought behind the two International Friendlies?
The sole reason we played these games against Oman and UAE was to check how much our guys are able to match strong teams at the moment. And it wouldn’t be fair if we hadn’t given everyone a chance in their positions to check them out, and get the answers we are looking for. It was easier against Oman because they also went out of the competitive rhythm, but it was entirely different against UAE wherein the competitive rhythm was at the maximum – their championship is in full swing.
We have a talented youth set-up that needs to be given time, and peace at work. We believe in them – they are the best we have, and all together we are obliged to give them the opportunity to mature for greater achievements. Defeats are part of that path. They are painful but it serves to teach and mature them.
We have matches against Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan coming up in June. Will we be able to make everyone dream again?
No one can deny us the right to dream, or the right to have faith. It’s going to be difficult to handle three very competitive games in eight days after a few months’ break. But that’s something we need to get ready for. Time will give us the answers to these questions. But what I know for sure and what we can promise is that we will do our best to make our fans happy at the end of these Qualifiers. A quality long-term plan and hard work always brings joy in the end.
But haven’t you been experimenting with the team a bit too much?
Experimenting is when you play players in positions they have never played or when you switch to a game system that you did not practice in training. Personally, I don't like the word experimentation and it doesn't fit with what we do. We didn't bring a single player to Dubai who didn't deserve it with his performances in the Hero Indian Super League. However, due to illness, injury or poor form we could not count on Rahul Bheke, Seriton Fernandes, Ashish Rai, Brandon Fernandes, Abdul Sahal, Udanta Singh and Sunil Chhetri.
We gave everyone a chance to play in their natural positions – in the same game system but against far stronger opponents than those they have in the Hero ISL. This was our only chance to see the new boys and work with them before the decisive qualifiers. We came to Dubai with just one goal, to get an answer to the question of how much the new guys can provide against two tough opponents and whether we will get a few new names for the remaining qualifying matches due in June.
When will the Blue Tigers be getting their settled first XI?
What does that mean? Can I tell you 11 names now, and you feel that those 11 will represent India for the next three games, three months or three years?
Each new match is a new challenge and an opportunity to confirm the indicated trust or to leave the place to another candidate. The National Team consists of 30-35 players competing with each other for the starting position. Each position must have 2-3 equally quality players who are able to meet the requirements at a given time.
What’s the selection criteria for the National team?
For the National Team, players are selected on the basis of continuous good form in clubs, and their ability to adapt to the requirements of the game plan in relation to the strength of the opponent.
Take Udanta (Singh) for example. He showed internationally that he has the strength and speed and that he can meet most of our expectations. But last season he was below expectation on a personal and club level. So we gave the chance to some new players in that position to see whether they can provide at the moment as much as he or more.
Qualification cycle is a 4-year process through which those 30-35 players constantly compete between them for the final list of 23 to represent the country in the final tournament. I can freely say that before coming to Dubai, we had 18-19 names for the continuation of qualifications based on our work so far. Now, after these two games and 15 days of working together, we have a few more players to add on the list for the future.
You have always insisted on a long term development plan. In the process, results have suffered. How much does that help? Isn’t it having a dent on the confidence of our players?
Self-confidence can only be shaken by those who do not believe in what we do. The best ones will learn lessons from these unpleasant results, and keep going forward together. They will invest more time in their work, improve their muscle strength and knowledge in technical-tactical points. At the beginning of our work we had clearly stated our goals – to qualify for the AFC Cup 2023, and create a team that will take a more serious part in the next WCQ 2026.
Is this the right path?
I have repeated myself several times mentioning that the path we are taking will be difficult and sometimes painful. But I know from experience that that's the only right way. Everyone needs to understand the difference between friendly games and qualifiers. We made it clear that we will insist on much stronger opponents in friendlies to help our players gain the necessary experience. Friendly games are always to be used as a part of development and results are less important there. As for the results of the World Cup Qualifiers, I must remind you of the truth – and the numbers speak for themselves.
In the previous 2018 WCQ India finished last in the group with seven defeats, one victory, with a total of three points and GD of -13 (minus 13). The Blue Tigers had suffered five losses in the first five games. Now, after five games played, with many new players in the team, we have three points and a very solid goal difference, and are on course to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023.
Not to forget that we held Qatar in Qatar, and that set of players are to play the World Cup next year. The Oman match was close (in the qualifiers), a match which we should have killed. But inexperience cost us. And among the two recently played matches, my young set of boys fought gallantly to hold Oman 1-1.
If you want to compare the recent friendly matches, then you need to take a closer look at teams India has played against before, and with whom since I have been in charge. One heavy defeat will certainly not make us give up and return to the pleasure of defeating opponents who do not pose any obstacle in Asian football.
The Blue Tigers have won just one match (against Thailand since May 2019). Of course we have had wonderful results against Qatar and Oman. But there have been disappointments. How do you look back?
Sometimes I get the impression that we have too much opinion of ourselves when it comes to opponents like Afghanistan or Bangladesh. Let me remind you that Afghanistan has allowed Overseas Citizen players to play for the National team. They now have 13 players coming from European leagues. They are competing in Germany, Poland, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden. They also have two players playing in Australian clubs, and one player in the USA top division. Bangladesh has introduced a 3 + 1 policy – and their league is extremely competitive too.
On the issue of FIFA ranking – believe me, there is no difference or favourites among all the teams that are outside the top 100. There are maybe 9-10 teams left in that group that are still at a low level, nothing more than that. So we need to respect everyone. We are on the path of developing a new young team. We need support and a positive environment for our youngsters to get through.