India Football Team coach Igor Stimac, in an interview with Nilanjan Dutta on AIFF’s Instagram handle discussed Indian Football Team’s upcoming friendlies with Asian teams Oman and UAE, his team selection, the pandemic, his thoughts on I-League, and much more.
These are some excerpts from the session.
Q) How is Dubai? How has the weather been there and how have the training sessions been so far?
It’s good. After a long time, I finally have the chance to spend time with our players and to see how much they improved. The weather here is pleasant. As players are mentioning it’s much easier to handle training sessions here and work here than it was in Goa which was a very humid place and they had to endure the longest sporting bubble in the world which is not so easy. So Dubai comes to them at a good time. They are working hard, it is more flexible here and it suits them pretty well.
Q)Many new faces in the camp. Does it change your approach and is it difficult or easy to be coaching the young players?
No, it doesn’t change our approach. The people who are here are based on the merit that they have earned through the ISL. The youngsters impressed me a lot this season, most of them came through the youth development program, and many of them were a part of the U17 World Cup generation. I am really happy that these projects managed to be very successful and surely are going to bring a brighter future to Indian Football.
Q)How much will Sunil Chhetri’s experience be missed. Is that a big blow to the squad?
Yeah, we all are very sad that our captain is not with us. We are sending him our love and regards. Hope that he comes back motivated as always very soon in April. You know how important he is to the team and how great of a motivator he is to the youngsters, and how influential he is. In regards to how to replace him, the answer was already given against Thailand in Kings Cup and against Qatar. It needs to be a team effort, they are enormously motivated and have a point to prove in the absence of SC.
q)How do you rate Sunil Chhetri’s mental aspect and approach to the squad?
You see there are not many players at that age(36) playing at the highest level. Even though BFC didn’t have a good season, you can see how well SC played. It is clear from his numbers that he is motivated and wants to keep going, which is something the youngsters will learn by playing beside him.
Q)Did you pick players from the point of view of your gameplan or did you pick them because they performed well in the ISL or was it a conglomeration of the both?
It was a conglomeration of not only these two things but many more like some players have proved already that they can play well at the international level and even if they have not performed well in recent times you cannot erase them from the squad. But most of the players who are here are because of their performances in the past ISL seasons. All of them have earned their calls. I am sorry the list couldn’t be longer, there are a few more who could be here with us but there is a certain limit on the player’s list and we cannot go above that. Of course, the players I want must be able to complement what we are looking for. As you can see we have an average squad age of just 24 years. We have a good mix of young and experienced players and we are trying to build on that.
We are trying to develop the youngsters as much as possible to make sure that in the upcoming four years they become ready to play against the bests. This is a long process and also over the last 12 months, we couldn’t be together and work together. All the players are hard-working which is fantastic for the national team and for overall football promotion in India. Football will take over very soon in India as the number one sport.
Q)You have got a very young midfield contingent that has tremendous pace. Will these youngsters help enforce your attacking style of play much more?
Absolutely, as we speak of our team’s structure, our midfield players must have aggression and they must be fast and charismatic. They must have everything that is needed in modern football. And I think our players have improved a lot in this segment, we have 6-7 youngsters who can fight, who can chase, who can pass the ball without any fear which is very important. They proved themselves in the ISL and now they need to prove it at the international level. I will give them the chance to do so. Our goal is to make them feel relaxed, to explain that there is no fear on the international level. They have to be themselves and prove to the world that they can play against the best.
Q)With so many youngsters, what advice are you giving them and how are you protecting them and keeping them under your umbrella?
We are family. This is the family circle here and we fight for each other, we live together, we breathe together and there is no reason for anyone to feel scared or have any kind of fear. Not a single player will be eliminated for one or two mistakes, What we are trying to work on is not to repeat mistakes. As I mentioned earlier, we are a team that is difficult to beat. Although we are not conceding many goals, we do have a problem in scoring goals, and this is a consistent issue in Indian Football.
There are many players who are not on the final squad. There is Rahul KP who impressed us a lot, Amarjit who is currently injured. Then there is Narender who played most of this season as a full-back. I see him as a proper center back in the coming future. Then there is Komal and Sumit who have not played much for ATK. They are all our future, we are following them and helping them. The future belongs to them.
Q)How much will these two friendlies benefit Indian Football?
As I have already said, playing against stronger players and teams is the only way to improve. That’s what we are trying to do. After finding out that the qualifiers are being postponed to June, we confirmed friendlies against Asian teams Oman and the UAE. This is a great opportunity to compete against Asia’s best and improve ourselves.
Q)Where do the Blue Tigers go after the international friendlies? Will there be a camp in May before the June qualifiers?
It’s on the table. We are planning to have camps but it’s not so easy since three clubs- Goa, ATK Mohun Bagan, and Bengaluru will be involved in the Asian competitions throughout April and May. We are discussing everything, and I would love to begin the camp somewhere in April in India to test all the players for the last three qualifiers. With the Corona situation changing every week, it’s not easy to plan and we need to have different options ready.
Also Read: ISL 2020-21 | Top 5 foreign defensive midfielders
Q)Indian Football has led from the front during the COVID situation. With the I-League qualifiers, the ISL, and then the I-league. Being part of the Indian Football family, how proud are you that Indian Football brought sports back to India?
I am very proud. There are many critics in regards to the work of the AIFF but this is the best answer to all of them. The AIFF and its partners deserve a lot of credit for being able to successfully hold both the Indian Super League and the Indian League against all odds and without a single positive case. Many people from UEFA have sent me congratulatory messages praising the organization for managing such a massive event smoothly amid this pandemic.
Q)What’s your take on the revolution that has been going on in the grassroots of Indian Football?
People following Indian Football can see the ISL, the I-League all of which is shown on TV, but they usually aren’t aware of the grassroots activity that we are doing. Soon you will be able to see the results of all these works. Last season I sent my staff to help the Indian Arrows. Venky, who is my assistant has worked a lot with them. We are thinking globally and everyone is equally important for the growth of Indian Football.
Some people have been concerned that I am not following the I-League but actually I have Venky associated with the Arrows and he regularly provides me with statistics, numbers, and great insights on the teams and players in the I-League. We need to be realistic as well. The ISL is more professional and the players will have to come through it. I consider the I-League, which is of lower quality, a feeder league for the ISL, where players can gain experience and get noticed by the ISL clubs and sign for them. This does not mean that they will not make the Indian squad, some players will surely get the cut if they are really good.
Football starts in baby leagues. Last year we handled over 30,000 games all over India. A year before that it was like 12,000 games. So we managed to triple the number of games in the baby leagues. It will go up. Football is becoming very popular in India.
Q) The year 2022 will be very significant for Women’s Football in India. The Asian Cup and U17 World Cup will be hosted here. How important is the development of women’s football in parallel with the men’s game?
Girl’s football is developing real quick. We are very excited about the upcoming tournaments. The U16 and U17 teams of women’s football are getting great exposure. The focus of ours is to promote football in the country, get people engaged, and become successful.