Kolkata: When Igor Stimac, a Croatian football icon from the ‘90s, was appointed the Chief Coach of Indian senior team three years back, it was easily the most high profile appointment in that post by All India Football Federation (AIFF). As the ‘Blue Tigers.’ as they are called, gear up to take the final step for qualifying for the Asian Cup 2023, there may not have been any miracles but Stimac feels: ‘‘We didn’t fail.’’
The third and final round of the Qualifiers in Kolkata will see India taking on Cambodia, Afghanistan and Hong Kong on June 8, 11 and 14, respectively at the Salt Lake Stadium. Stimac’s boys are in line to qualify for the 24-team marquee event which showcases the best of Asian talent for the second time in a row, with them having qualified for the 2019 edition in the UAE.
Speaking during an interaction with selected media, Stimac - one of the architects of Croatia’s third place finish in 1998 World Cup who played at the heart of defence with Slaven Bilic - appealed for the crowd support in their matches as it would the first time in two years they would be playing the qualifiers at home and in front of a crowd. ‘‘I need India to take the field with an attitude in the first game against Cambodia as a good result there will give them the confidence. They will be, actually, enjoying the favourites tag here,’’ said the 54-year-old, who had been a coach to the likes of Luka Modric during his stint with the Croatian national team between 2012 and 2013.
The three rivals may be ranked below India (now 106th) in Fifa rankings, but Stimac feels that it’s not really a benchmark to decide on the outcome of the matches. “Of the three teams, Afghanistan will be a little more physical and we have to be ready to counter that. Their national team players have been playing in smaller leagues in Europe and have an exposure to a better football environment. Hong Kong have changed their rules and now have naturalised Brazilians in their national team,’’ he said.
The Blue Tigers, who had started their conditioning camp last month, had travelled to Doha to play two friendlies - where the first one against a higher ranked Zambia got cancelled at the last minute while they lost the second game 2-0 to Jordan. A look at India’s win-loss percentage under Stimac betrays a not-so-flattering 25% - with a 1-1 draw against Asian champions Qatar in a World Cup qualifier being their best result in terms of quality while they also won the SAFF Championship. The team’s progress was, however, blighted by a gap of 16 months during the Covid-19 pandemic when they did not play a single match. Their failure to qualify for Qatar 2022 was not exactly a surprise but they managed to finish third in the group - a finish which put them into the third round of Qualifiers.
How would Stimac look back at a tenure, which appeared under threat last year before the AIFF bigwigs extended his contract till September this year? ‘‘I would say we didn’t fail and we kept ourselves alive in difficult cirsumstances, while changing the team systematically. We do stand a chance for the future. We have to first make sure that we qualify for the Asian Cup - and we are very close to doing that.
‘‘At the end of that campaign, we will have a group of players with good age and enough experience. That’s what we are looking for. Did we expect more than what we did, yes - but we didn’t fail,’’ said Stimac, who was considered a legend of sorts at the Derby County and also played for West Ham United.
A tenure of three years has made him conversant with the problems of being in the hot seat of senior Indian football team. ‘‘The expectations here are huge. When I came to India, I pushed myself to a new challenge. Who could be happier than me if I could make at least one third of the population happy?’’ he signed off.