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Indian Football Team Needs Better Challenges Before It Qualifies for World Cup: Coach Igor Stimac

Igor Stimac
© Photo : All India Football Federation (AIFF)

The current manager of the Indian national football team, Igor Stimac, is a former footballer who played as a centre-back for Croatia. He was also in charge of the Croatian side from 2012 to 2013.

The Indian football team's Croatian coach, Igor Stimac, who joined the Blue Tigers in 2019, believes the national team requires tougher opponents to shape up properly to qualify for the World Cup.

Stimac also said that India's Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is on the verge of becoming the best in Asia - the most populated continent on earth.

He ranks Sandhu as one of the top three goalkeepers in Asia.

In an interview with Sputnik, the Indian team's national coach talked about various aspects of the team, including Sandesh Jhinghan being among the best Asian defenders, and what structural changes are needed for the team to qualify for the FIFA World Cup.

Sputnik: How do you view the Indian team's performance in the World Cup qualifiers so far?

Igor Stimac: We had certain goals before the qualifiers started and at the end of the road we fulfilled those goals. The most important thing for us obviously was to accomplish the third spot in the qualifiers. It was our goal.

We couldn't do more for certain reasons, we were never able to put the same eleven on the pitch due to injuries, missing key players was a huge problem at the beginning of the qualifiers.

But in the end, we are on our way and we are getting ready for the third round of qualifiers, which should take us to the final stages of the AFC Cup where we want to present a different India to the world.

Sputnik: Having been driven by the belief that the team must have a long-term development plan, do you think such a process is okay for players' confidence?

Igor Stimac: When I began my work as India's coach in 2019, it was very clear to us that we needed to change our mindset first. We needed to change many things in our approach to work.

We needed to restructure our competitions that we required to develop players, baby leagues, golden leagues, we needed to start all over again from scratch. That's what we started doing.

We had a good platform based on the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup with some youth players and our decision went that way to give opportunities to all these wonderful youngsters to mature and grow up on a weekly basis.

In doing so, we were supposed to make sure that they got their chances in the friendly games we used to play because that would benefit Indian football and the national team in the near future.

Of course, I was the first one who at the very first press conference said that we have taken the path which would put us in a situation to suffer sometimes and that's what is happening.

The opponents that India was competing against, when I took over, were quite different from their rivals now.

Most of India's current opponents are inside the top 100 in the rankings. And, as I see, in football that is the only way to advance your quality, improve your game, when you start playing against better sides.

Obviously, you cannot expect great results in such games, there will be suffering. But our players will mature as they will have to keep pace with their high quality opponents, so that we can be more competitive in future qualifiers.

Sputnik: How has the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) benefited the team, and Indian football overall?

Igor Stimac: We need to appreciate everything that the ISL has been doing in the past seven years for Indian football. We can clearly state now that the ISL is becoming a strong league. Even though it should have more participants, considering how large a country India is.

We need to come to a number of 20 clubs in the ISL. It would provide at least 38 games per season for the participants and with the Super Cup involved and with another tournament there as a competition, it would make our players stronger and more resistant.

The ISL has helped Indian football a lot. The league is strongly placed as a professional league with a great organisation behind it. Now we need to bring the I-League to that level, helping the clubs in restructuring themselves and placing them closer to the quality of the ISL.

All of us should agree that at the moment there's a huge difference between the quality of ISL clubs and I-League clubs.

Sputnik: What structural changes would it require for the Indian team to qualify for the World Cup in the next decade?

Igor Stimac: The number of games in the competitions definitely needs to change. Also, there should be tournaments that have more pressure on the players. The ISL is progressing from year to year. But there is no pressure on the players because there is no relegation.

Obviously, relegation needs to be involved in any competition, more so in the ISL, which will bring a certain amount of pressure on the players, and they will not find themselves in a comfort zone.

We also need to develop the I-League as a true national league, which will be a great, great filter to the national team.

The I-League should scrap its foreign players' policy because I don't see a reason why the tournament should have so many overseas footballers.

That league should have the Indian players in the forward position, offensive midfield position, centre-back position. It would give me the chance to choose players from the I-League for the national team instead of waiting for these players to come to the ISL and prove themselves at that stage.

And if we can have four foreigners in ISL clubs, we don't need to sacrifice national team football in the I-League as well.

Sputnik: How would you rank Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu as several former players perceive him to be presently among the top three goalkeepers in Asia?

Igor Stimac: He is absolutely right up there. I have spent the last two years watching Gurpreet grow, and becoming a fantastic professional and a player who is absolutely committed to his job, to his club, and national duty.

Definitely he is among the top 3. Actually, he is in the third position as I see the goalkeepers at the moment.

Mathew Ryan of Australia, who has had a few problems with injury in the last two years, is among the best goalkeepers or may be the best in Asia.

And Alireza Beiranvand from Iran, I would say that these two goalkeepers in certain circumstances at this point are slightly better than Gurpreet.

But if Gurpreet keeps working like he has in the last two years, he will soon become better than them to emerge as the best goalkeeper in Asia.

Sputnik: Which of the players at present seems ready to be given the baton from Indian captain Sunil Chhetri?

Igor Stimac: Despite his contribution and motivation, the Indian captaincy is up for grabs even now, while he is there.

All these youngsters, they need to prove themselves, and if they are better than Sunil, they will get their chance while he is still part of the squad. So they don't need to wait on him to leave and hang his boots up to become the next Indian skipper.

In fact, I am inviting them to show up - show yourself and show me that you are better than Sunil and you will get your chance even now.

Sputnik: Where would you place Sandesh Jhinghan if you had to pick the best defenders from the continent? Is he among the top 5 in Asia?

Igor Stimac: I can clearly state that if Sandesh had not got the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury at the beginning of our campaign, he would already be among the top 5 centre-backs in Asia.

That injury stopped him from doing some extra work on the technical part of his game, like improving on his passing skills, but just from the defending point of view, he is among three best centre-backs in Asia.

His defence is immaculate, his leadership skills are significant for the team, and he always gives us extra confidence as he is pushing everyone around him.

He deserves credit for his hard work as he has now become the only current Indian national team player to play for a foreign club in Croatia.

Even though he would have to earn his place in the team, I know Sandesh and I am quite confident with his mindset, he will earn his spot and will soon become a strength in the HNK Sibenik side.

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