Asiad or ISL? Indian football caught offside 

On Tuesday, Stimac took to social media in a last-ditch attempt to dial up the pressure on the clubs.
Indian football team. (Photo | Igor Stimac, Twitter)
Indian football team. (Photo | Igor Stimac, Twitter)

BENGALURU:  It’s perhaps an apt reflection of where Indian football is at right now. The deadline to name a final squad for the Asian Games — an opportunity won on sympathy and public outcry and not on merit — elapses in just four days. But there is still no clarity over who is going for the continental event. As the deadline nears and every stakeholder continues to stick to their positions, it is looking almost impossible that coach Igor Stimac will be able to take the team that he had originally named, to Hangzhou.

On Tuesday, Stimac took to social media in a last-ditch attempt to dial up the pressure on the clubs. “The time is coming to put all cards on the table and see how much and who really cares about football in this country,” he posted on X (Previously Twitter). “Give it a thought before making up your judgment and thanks once again for your support.” Resorting to social media to drum up support is a tactic that the Croat has used, time and again. It was his post, pleading for a chance to participate in the Asiad that kickstarted the hue-and-cry and led to the Sports Ministry making an exception for the football teams.

But this time, Stimac will not get what he wants. Any chance of a postponement of ISL fixtures is minimal — there is just over a week left before the tournament starts and a change in schedule on such short notice will not be acceptable for the broadcasters. At least some of the clubs have legitimate reasons for not releasing players. Take Bengaluru FC, for example. Stimac’s original squad would have taken away not only Sunil Chhetri but the man who would have replaced him in the XI, Sivasakthi Narayanan. And it would have cost them the services of goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu with their reserve keepers Amrit Gope and Vikram Singh injured. Their first game of the season is against arch-rivals Kerala Blasters, the one fixture their fans wouldn’t want to lose. Taking to the field in Kochi with their fourth-choice keeper would be something unthinkable for the BFC faithful.

Another club that has all the reasons in the world to not release their players is Mumbai City FC. Any MCFC player at the Asiad would be missing not only the first two ISL games of the season but the first two AFC Champions League games as well. Speaking in Bengaluru on Tuesday, MCFC coach Des Buckingham pointed out that by playing in Asia’s top club tournament, they too were representing the country. “We are also going to the top level of club competition in Asia, to represent not just our club, but our region and Indian football. So we want to make sure that we have our best performance in that space,” said Buckingham.

The Englishman also reiterated that Mumbai City has always been supportive of the national team. “It’s been two years that I’ve been here now and we have always been hugely supportive of the national team and our players going on to represent the national team, whether that’s at age-group level or the seniors,” he said. “To give you an idea of what that looks like, outside the FIFA windows, we have released players into camp environments for just under 90 days, when we did not have to. I know we are not the only ones to do that. But it’s important that our players get the opportunity to represent the national team. We know how important that is. All we can do at the moment is try and prepare as well as we can, and then we will see what the outcome of everything is.”

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