MUMBAI: In his 10 months as the national coach, Igor Stimac has identified the key stakeholders in Indian football and the reasons that are holding the country back from being a real force. The Croatian World Cupper, with an immense personality and passion, opens up during a free-wheeling chat with select media in Mumbai on Friday. Excerpts...
The World Cup qualifier against Qatar is likely to be postponed due to coronavirus. How has that hit the team’s preparations?
We are unsure if we are going to have a camp (to be held in Bhubaneswar from March 9). We need to keep our focus because we haven’t got official confirmation yet. I have called over 40 players in these two camps. It’s simple; this is all we’ve got. And there are some players which I haven’t seen live. For me, the important thing is initial numbers, to find out what is their capacity now. To see what we can build on.
You have been in charge of the national team for 10 months. How do you see it shaping up?
Now when I analyse our work in the past 10 months, I see the improvements we made. India is a team which is difficult to beat today. But we are still not a team who can easily win games, that’s the second step. But we are not a club; we are not training every day.
I was working in Iran and in Qatar and the football structure is clear, everybody works for the benefit of the national team. To wake India up (in football), we need national team success. I’m happy that this year is a bit different. The players who were going through the process with the national team, from May to August, are one of the best in their club sides. But it’s kind of reverse. I was preparing them for ISL teams, instead of them preparing players for me.
Do you think Indian Leagues are over-reliant on foreign talent, especially upfront?
My suggestion for the top tier was to follow the AFC rule: 3+1 (player of Asian origin). Most successful Asian teams are following that rule. Many times the question is where are you going to find a replacement for Sunil Chhetri? You tell me.
We will never find replacement for Chhetri while the situation is like this. Where am I going to find a striker? We didn’t open the (attacking) positions for Indian youngsters in Indian Super League (ISL) or I-League. Where are they going to play? If you consider that India with 1.5 billion people have a top tier of 10 clubs, of which 60% are foreigners. Which means there are only 40 players with Indian passports, and out of these, 20 are fullbacks and 10 are defensive midfielders. Now out of this you have to make one Picasso picture!
Have you had discussions with clubs over the deployment of Indian players?
We did speak about that. But the club owners are thinking about their teams and the results, which is understandable. But decisions need to be made from higher authorities; the clubs need to follow the rules of the national federation. What’s worrying me is, in the I-League, there are five foreign players.
Why do we need them?
If the roadmap is accepted, and it’s decided that ISL is top-tier, let’s make I-League a development league, Indian players only. I am telling you, Indian Arrows, in six months, will win I-League with Indian players. These young lads, who are released by ISL clubs as surplus, will win the league. Why don’t we trust our kids? Instead of wasting the money, it’s better to develop an academy. Each foreign player costs you $ 4000-5000 a month. With that money you can develop, every month, minimum of five home-grown players. It’s a long process. India put in a lot of resources into the U-17 team when they hosted the men’s U-17 World Cup in 2017.That needs to be done every three months, not only when you have a World Cup. Because of the size of the country, it’s not easy to initiate such a process. But we need to start somewhere.
What are the specific goals you are working towards?
There is a big chance in front of us, in 2026 (FIFA World Cup) because there will be 48 countries involved, which means there will be another four or five places available for Asian teams. We have four years to prepare ourselves, to be in top-8 in Asia. We don’t have time for misunderstandings between the different stakeholders in Indian football. I base all my work on youngsters; we have one of the youngest teams in the world today. The average age is about 19-20. Because in six years these boys will be 26-27, which is the winning age in football.