The day was 14th January 2019, India was couple of minutes away from a historic qualification to the knockouts stage of the Asian Cup but it wasn’t for so and we conceded a late penalty in the dying stages of the game against Bahrain. The penalty led to a goal and also the end of Stephen Constantine’s era which was very worthwhile if you consider from an overall aspect.
The Englishman was disappointed with the team’s inability to hold on in the most crucial game. India defeated Thailand by a 4-1 margin and gave their all against hosts UAE in the 2-0 defeat. But the 1-0 loss against Bahrain was unacceptable for former head coach Constantine as India needed only a draw to go through.
The Search for a New Coach – Igor Stimac
As Constantine left, the AIFF was in a dilemma to find his replacement amidst the heartbreaking defeat that resulted in India’s elimination from Asian Cup. It was, in fact, not an easy task to find someone for the post as Constantine was one of the most successful managers ever to coach team India in terms of most wins and also the highest winning percentage. A list of 35 candidates out of the 250-plus applicants was selected and then interviewed after several reviews and meetings and it even included some top names.
The likes of former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson and many other well-known names like Sam Allardyce, and Gianni De Biasi had all shown interest. However, due to a lack of proper resources, the AIFF was left with four candidates in the form of former Barcelona assistant coach and Bengaluru FC manager Albert Roca, former Croatia manager Igor Stimac, South Korea’s two-time World Cupper and U-23 coach Lee Min-sung, and former Sweden U-21 coach Hakan Ericson. Out of these four, only one had to be selected.
In the end, it was Igor Stimac who was appointed for the position of the Indian men’s national team head coach on 10th May 2019. The Croatian had stints in Asia before with the Qatari side Al Shahania and Iranian club Sepahan FC. Stimac did have a couple of stints with clubs in his native country, but the most impressive one will probably be with Hadjuk Split and the Croatia national team which included some of the world’s best footballers like former Balon D’or winner Luka Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, Kovacic, Brozovic, Mandzukic, and others.
Unsatisfactory 2022 World Cup Qualifiers
A fourth-place finish on home soil was the last thing the Blue Tigers did before starting the joint qualifiers for 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and 2023 AFC Asian Cup. India finished 3rd in the group which had reigning Asian Champions Qatar, and Oman, along with Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The team made headlines with their draw against Qatar in their backyard but also faced severe backlashes as they were unable to defeat Afghanistan twice and Bangladesh once. All three matches ended in a draw. India lost to Oman twice & and lost once to Qatar during the Qualifiers. The one and only win India had managed to get from the group was the win over neighbors Bangladesh in Doha.
Successful 2023 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers
In the 2023 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, however, India performed brilliantly on home soil to earn qualification for the finals in Qatar. The results included wins over Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong. The fans also got to watch India play free-flowing football for the first time in a long time.
Friendly & Competitive Matches Result (2019 – 2022)
Stimac’s first assignment as India’s coach was in June at the 2019 King’s Cup in Thailand. The first game ended in a defeat to Curacao, but the second game saw a win against the hosts Thailand which ensured India finished 3rd in the competition. The 2019 King’s Cup in Buriram, Thailand was followed by the 2019 Hero Intercontinental Cup in Ahmedabad in July. Team India didn’t have the best results as they ended up losing to lower-ranked sides like Tajikistan and North Korea but somehow managed to get a draw with a higher-ranked side in Syria.
|North Korea (ICC)||5-2||Loss|
|Sri Lanka (SAFF)||0-0||Draw|
The 2021 SAFF Championship was a success when we say India became the champions. But it wasn’t a fruitful one as team India ended up drawing with low-ranked nations like Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. A narrow win over Nepal in the third game was followed by big margin wins over the host Maldives in the semi-finals, and Nepal once again in the final to clinch India’s 8th title of the SAFF Men’s Championship.
If we take a look at all the international friendlies that India had played excluding all the official tournaments (like Qualifiers) between 2020 and 2022 then we will see that most of them has ended in defeats. The losses to Bahrain, Belarus, Jordan, and Vietnam along with the humiliating loss to UAE are a testament to that. India drew with Oman, Nepal, and Singapore and their only victory came against Nepal.
A New Era (2023)
India started the year with wins over Myanmar and the Kyrgyz Republic in March which saw the Blue Tigers be crowned as the Hero Tri-Nations Cup Champions in Imphal. This was the second edition of the tournament since 2017. India has emerged as the champion both times.
|Kyrgyz Republic (TNT)||2-0||Win|
|Lebanon (SAFF)||1-1||Win (On Pens)|
|Kuwait (SAFF)||1-1||Win (On Pens)|
In June, India won the Hero Intercontinental Cup by defeating the likes of Mongolia, Vanuatu, and Lebanon. This was the third edition of the tournament after 2018 and 2019. India won the tournament on two occasions back in 2018 and in 2023.
In July, the team then went on complete their treble by winning the 2023 SAFF Championship for the ninth time with wins over Pakistan, Nepal, and a draw with Kuwait, and wins over Lebanon and Kuwait on penalties in the semi-finals and finals of the tournament respectively.
Having triumphed in three tournaments in 2023, India has now set their eyes on adventures in foreign soils in September and October. Team India will be participating in Thailand’s King’s Cup and Malaysia’s Merdeka Cup. The Thailand and Malaysia tours will help Stimac’s India team to understand where they exactly lie ahead of the combined 2026 FIFA World Cup, and the 2027 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers which will commence in November. Meanwhile, the 2023 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar in January next year will undoubtedly be Croatian’s greatest test.
As you might know, the team is unbeaten this year and India hasn’t lost a game in the 11 games that they have played this year. Also, the team has conceded just two goals in 2023, both against Kuwait. The Blue Tigers have scored 16 goals in those games. With as many as 7 wins and 4 draws, India has become an unbeatable side in recent times and a team that no one would want to face as an underdog but as a real competition. It will only add to the player’s confidence to face Asia’s big boys.
How Stimac Brought a Change?
Coach Igor Stimac has absolutely brought a change in Indian football ever since his appointment. It’s true that initially, the team was not getting the results but he was trying to implement something new and that was quite evident but of course, it indeed needed some time.
- Change in playing style – Stimac has adapted a style that mostly relies on keeping possession of the ball, a contrast from the styles under Stephen Constantine and Bob Houghton which consisted of the old-fashioned system of playing and hooping long ball and hoping someone among the forwards does the miracle by himself. India generally used to play counter-attacking football and also defended for 90 minutes with low blocks to avoid defeats and hold on to draws. But this modern fearless India team under Igor Stimac tends to keep the ball to their feet as much as possible and also creates opportunities for scoring in the opponent team’s half. This was a welcome change that the fans had always wanted and coach Stimac certainly deserves a lot of credit for this transition in the way the team has adapted in the space of the last four years.
- Handing Youngsters National Team Debut & Proper Team Selection – Stimac has also handed national team debuts to many young players which shows his belief in them and also thinking for the future. This was never the case with coaches before him as they often preferred to call up a set of players who formed the national team despite being in poor form during the season. But under Stimac, only the deserving ones who have performed well throughout the season get a call-up to the team. He once famously said even captain Chhetri is not assured a place in the team and he has to be consistently performing in the season to be eligible for the call-up. It tells a lot about Stimac’s mentality as a coach for whom every player is equal, and no one is greater.
A Vocal and Supportive Coach
In recent times Stimac was seen to support his players and staff, and he even made several proposals over the years like:
- Calling up PIOs (Players of Indian Origin)
- Expanding the number of teams in the ISL to 16
- Increasing the number of games in the ISL
- I-League without having the foreigners
- Reducing the foreigner quota in ISL
- Longer Duration of National Team camps
- Playing only Indian players in the club’s key positions
Although the India National Team gaffer is very famous for his honest and sometimes controversial comments in press conferences or his actions on the sidelines, Stimac has always been trying to do all he can through his abilities to get the best out of the team at his disposal. After all, he knows what it takes to be at the highest level since he was part of the 1998 FIFA World Cup team that had finished as the third-best team in that edition.
Does Stimac Deserves an Extension?
The Croatian’s contract will end after India’s 2023 Asian Cup campaign. Previously the AIFF had decided on an automatic extension clause that would be triggered by default in case India managed to make it to the quarterfinals or the last 8 in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. But after the recent run of results, the top bosses of the federation have been quite happy with Stimac and would be happy to sit and discuss his future with the Indian team at the earliest. Even coach Igor Stimac himself declared that in a recent interview that took place.
Gaffer Igor Stimac has also vowed that if all the goals that he had promised to fulfill in the last four years were not met, he would leave his position by himself considering that the Round 2 of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers will be ongoing until June 2024 (after Asian Cup).
Do you think it will be better for AIFF to continue with Igor Stimac as the India National team coach or should they bring in a new manager to take us to the elite level after the conclusion of the AFC Asian Cup although it might take some time for the team to adapt under a new coach?
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