NEW DELHI: One of the highlights during the launch of the 13th season of the I-League here on Thursday was the fact that the men’s senior national coach Igor Stimac was in attendance. In fact, he even came out with the coveted trophy in hand. While it should not come as a surprise to see the national coach attend a league launch function, the fact that players in the national camp are usually made up of players from the Indian Super League made this a special appearance indeed.
But the Croatian made his intentions clear as soon as reporters engulfed him. He views players from both leagues in the same light and wants the best for the country. “I’m here to show that the I-League is as important as the ISL. I’m here to send the players who are participating in the I-League the message that all those who have an Indian passport are possible candidates for the Indian team.” A line that players and supporters of the national team will hope is more than just lip-service.
With the national team virtually out of reckoning to make the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, an influx of new players may be what it needs. The former defender is also aware of the fact that the league, now India’s second division, offers more chances to Indian players and that most current national team stars developed there.
The 52-year-old’s job has been made doubly difficult with key players — Sandesh Jhingan, Rowllin Borges, Amarjit Singh and Pranoy Halder — getting injured as well as the lack of quality Indian strikers to partner Sunil Chhetri upfront. “You tell me how many Indian strikers play regularly apart from Sunil? This is a problem for sure. Why do you expect (the team) to score goals at the international level if we don’t have strikers in the league scoring goals? I’m now waiting for Jobby Justin to play regularly and score.”
The former World Cupper, however, refused to only highlight negative points. He emphasised on how much the national team’s style has changed since he took over. His only wish was to see more patience from fans and officials.
“The average number of passes in the Asian Cup (in January this year) was 242 in the 90 minutes, now it is 400; passing accuracy in the Asian Cup was 67 per cent but now it is 82 per cent. We reduced the long-range passes from 25 per cent to 15 per cent. We increased match tempo from 13.2 to 15.2. I am a very realistic person. It will be a long process and it will take time,” he explained.
For Stimac, the aim going forward is to qualify for the Asian Cup and better this year’s display.
“We have three more matches to play and now we are on the way to achieve what we have promised, that we are going to compete in 2023 Asian Cup. We want to prepare the team better and go into the qualifiers of the next (2026) World Cup with higher expectations.
“I would also like to add that in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the team lost five matches on the trot and had zero points after five matches. Now we have two defeats and three draws and three points. So it is certainly not all gloom and doom,” he added.