Igor Stimac sounded optimistic, as he always does. But it felt more like an SOS call to those in charge of Indian football.
The chief coach was asked if the national team lacked a quality central defender to partner Sandesh Jhingan, who is playing club football in Stimac’s homeland, Croatia. Stimac didn’t miss an open goal.
“Not only central defence, all areas are a problem for us,” he said. “With pandemic going around, we have a season that won’t last for eight-nine months. That’s the biggest problem for Indian football. Working like this, where players come to the national team during offseason, it’s terrible.”
Stimac was spot on with his diagnosis of the main problem facing Indian football – the flawed domestic structure. But it isn’t just because of the pandemic. The outbreak of Covid-19 last year might have delayed the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) plans to have a longer season, but it’s not a recent problem.
For almost a decade, the unnaturally short domestic season has hindered player development, which has had a cascading impact on the national team.
The Indian Super League (ISL), the country’s premier division, lasts for only four months, making it one of the shortest in the world. This is due to multiple factors but primarily commercial. The new season, for instance, will start next month and end in March 2022 and then until the next season begins – in November, going by the recent trend – the players will have nothing to do apart from playing in an odd match in between.
This has put India’s footballers at a massive disadvantage compared to the others, so much so that even the countries from South Asia, like Bangladesh who have a proper full season, are starting to trouble the world’s 107th-ranked team. At the recently-concluded South Asian Football Championship, which India won after huffing and puffing their way through the initial matches, this was glaring.
Stimac said he did not consider the SAFF title to be a ‘special success’ but praised the players for their ‘togetherness, energy, positive attitude and great mindset.’ But wasn’t too pleased that the few days he got with the team before the Cup was spent working on their fitness, rather than the tactical aspects of the game.
“We had certain problems in the beginning because we did not have enough preparation compared to other teams. Nepal had two-and-a-half months to prepare. We had only 7-8 days prior to the tournament. Half of the team was without proper competition mode and fitness… Soon, we will have a normal season like in other countries. We want to get to top 10 in Asia and (for that) we need to have the same quality of league as in the other countries,” Stimac said in a media interaction.
The Asian Football Confederation, it is learnt, has given the AIFF time till next year to increase the number of matches clubs play each season, which would automatically increase the length of the season. If the federation fails to do so, India could lose its Asian Champions League spot.
If China can’t can India?
Stimac cited the example of China to demonstrate how tough the path will be for India to match other Asian nations before dreaming about qualifying for the World Cup. “China has been spending more than a billion dollars per year in football development. Millions of children in academies, thousands and thousands of foreign coaches, getting foreign players to play for their national team, and still, it’s not enough (for them to qualify for the World Cup),” he said. “We are dreaming about going to World Cup one day. It’s a huge, massive process because we are not the only ones dreaming about it. Other countries are doing more (than us) in terms of quantity of investments, grassroots, foreign coaches at academies, coaching licensing…”
India’s record under Stimac hasn’t been particularly impressive but the Croat wasn’t too concerned about it. His task, Stimac said, was to ‘reconstruct’ the national team by making the players play technically solid football and improve the bench strength.
The process, he underlined, would involve ‘suffering’, in terms of results but he was satisfied with the progress the team has made under him.
“The only result in which we did not fulfill expectations was against Bangladesh at Salt Lake (1-1 draw). But then, apart from two matches, we could not play our other qualifying matches at home and still, we qualified for the third round,” he said. “From this stage now on, we can go one step further which will be playing good football in the third round of qualifiers and making sure India qualifies for Asian Cup.”
That, again, will be tricky. The third round of qualifiers, which will be India’s final chance to qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup in China, begins in February 2022.
According to FIFA rules, clubs have to release their players for four days for national team duties on dates earmarked for such games. The Asian Cup qualifiers, however, will be played outside the usual FIFA window, which could lead to a tussle between the club and a national team. Stimac said it was important to make sure the dates of the qualifying matches are considered ‘a part of the ISL calendar so that the players are released for national team duty.’
“If we are going to succeed in this qualifier which are games to play outside FIFA window, we need to sit down with other stakeholders in domestic competitions (read ISL), how much time the national team players will get for preparation,” he said. “Otherwise, we are going to gamble, as simple as that.”