It has been more than two years since Igor Stimac was appointed the head coach of the Indian team, and has seen a lot of ups and downs throughout his stint. In the 17 matches, he has been in charge of the Blue Tigers, they have won three, losing seven and playing out a draw on as many occasions.
One moment of recklessness and it was all over. India was on the brink of qualifying for knock-stages of the AFC Asian Cup for the first time ever, but it went down the drain as Bahrain converted from the spot in the dying minutes of the game. However, the win over Thailand, followed by inspiring performances in consecutive matches had grabbed a million eyeballs, albeit, after a long-time for Indian football. Things were falling into the groove smoothly till then; who knew a loss would change the entire complexion within days.
The architect behind the recent resurgence was soaking in the disappointment from the sidelines, while subconsciously making up his mind to call it a day. Stephen Constantine stepped down from the top job, bringing Indian football to a juncture where the road ahead seems bumpy once again. After all, the British manager had guided India to unprecedented heights during his tenure, which includes AFC Asian Cup qualification after eight years and breaching the top-100 of the FIFA rankings.
After a robust selection process, overseeing CVs of numerous Indian and foreign applicants, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) zeroed in on Croatian manager Igor Stimac. A former World Cupper with his national side in 1998, the incoming tactician was easily one of the most high-profile imports in the recent past. With the Constantine era over, Indian football fans were bracing themselves for a new dawn, with his first assignment – the King’s Cup, in Thailand inching closer.
Pitted against higher-ranked Curacao in the first match was always a tough task, with India stumbling on the occasion with a 1-3 loss. However, recovering well with a hard-fought 1-0 win over a competitive Thailand side marked-off Igor’s tenure on a positive note, even though it was a shade less than perfect. However, the Intercontinental Cup, one month later, would give an actual reality check. Losing 2-4 to a lower-ranked Tajikistan side in the opening match did sky-rocket the anxiety level of the fans, while a 2-5 surrender to North Korea just invited more criticism.
In spite of a 1-1 draw against Syria in the final match of the tournament, the temperatures were soaring as the 2022 World Qualifiers approached. Arguably, Stimac’s men were given a comfortable draw, with neighbours Bangladesh and Afghanistan pitted with them alongside Oman and a strong Qatar side. The hosts of the 2022 World Cup were the toughest to overcome, while Oman, still a tough hurdle, yet achievable.
Bangladesh and Afghanistan were deemed to be regulation runovers, while a win/draw against Oman could have easily handed them an opportunity to qualify for the next round, with even the second-placed team guaranteed a ticket, as Qatar being the hosts already earning a berth for the showpiece event.
But, the permutations and combinations would come into play later on, if the team got itself in such a position. In spite of a bright start against Oman in the opening game at home, two late strikes from the Gulf nation robbed India off possible three points. Later, India did manage to pull-off a historic 0-0 draw against Qatar, setting the social media on fire. It was indeed a great result, but not a great performance! However, that gives some fuel for the rest of the campaign. With Bangladesh set to visit Kolkata for the next encounter, a win was the only direction the fingers were pointing at.
The grand occasion did not age well, as the Blue Tigers failed to overcome their neighbours, settling for a 1-1 draw and embarrassing themselves in front of 60,000 fans at the Salt Lake Stadium. For the first time, Igor Stimac was facing the heat, with questions being raised over his tactics and conservative style of play. The sour treatment did not reflect in their game as another last-minute rescue in the succeeding match against Afghanistan, away from home. It went from bad to worse, with India losing the last match of that leg against Oman by a solitary goal.
Igor Stimac had a few months to turn things around. But, trouble seems to have no end, as the pandemic struck. The positive? India got more time to mend its ways. The negative? With matches to be played on neutral venues, India lost the opportunity to host two matches. By the time the next match arrived in 2021, a year later of the initial schedule, India suffered a 0-6 loss to UAE in a friendly and a 1-1 draw to Oman. Things hardly changed as Sunil Chhetri and Co. lost to Qatar 0-1. India’s last win came two years ago!
Sunil Chhetri’s brilliance gave India a much-needed 2-0 victory and also saved Igor Stimac’s blushes for the time-being. The phase was short-lived, as India ended the campaign with a draw against Afghanistan. India finished at the third spot in the group stage, with just ONE win to their name in eight matches. From a layman’s point of view, the outcome was not disastrous, as India even qualified for the third round of the 2023 AFC Asian Qualifiers, but the campaign turned out to be an escape rather than a smooth ride.
Having been in charge of 17 matches so far, Stimacs' win percentage of 17.6% is a poor reflection of how steeply things have come down for Indian football. His recent comments on ‘Indian football has to improve a lot,’ after a win over Nepal recently is nothing more than a cliche. The clock is ticking for the Croatian and has an onerous task ahead of him; of taking the team to new heights.
For now, he’s been given a lease of life, with his contract extended till September 2022. Stimac has been provided all sorts of aid from the federation; it’s high time he delivers. It is to be noted that the Stimac always infused young blood into the squad, which is visionary, but developing talents is an area where he's lacked big time. The 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers are the ultimate test for the manager, either he produces the goods or gets the ticket back home as there’s nothing in between!