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Indian football fans want Igor Stimac sacked, but he isn’t national team’s main problem; failed domestic structure, ISL are

A failed domestic structure, an ISL that doesn’t prepare India players for the elite level and footballers who don’t want to get out of their comfort zone are some of the issues plaguing Indian football.

Igor Stimac, a compulsive crowd-pleaser, wouldn’t have seen it coming.

Minutes after India sunk to a new low following the 2-1 loss to Afghanistan in the 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup joint qualifier, hundreds of fans surrounded the team bus as the players and coach exited the stadium, chanting ‘Stimac out!’ amidst a din of boos. The man who pulls no punches is now Indian football’s favourite punching bag.

Indeed, his volte-faces, which would embarrass even a seasoned politician, constantly shifting goalposts, giving lame excuses and the tendency to throw everyone else under the bus give a glimpse into the mind of a football manager who seems bereft of ideas or a bigger vision.

India suffer shock defeat against Afghanistan#INDAFG ⚔️ #FIFAWorldCup #AsianQualifiers 🏆 #BlueTigers 🐯 #IndianFootball ⚽️

— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) March 26, 2024

But as things stand, Stimac isn’t the only problem confronting Indian football.

India can still finish second in their group and make the cut, for the first time, for the third round of World Cup qualifiers. Though historic, it might not necessarily be a good thing. It will only paper over the cracks and give the administrators at Football House a false sense of achievement despite deep structural problems.

Stimac’s tenure will be remembered for his frequent Cruyff turns with his actions and statements as per convenience. But in doing so, he also routinely flung a truth bomb or two, showing Indian football the mirror.

The quality of players

What Stimac first said: “Mindset has changed and they can play with intensity for 120 minutes. These are good signs…” – July 2023

The U-turn: “This is our reality… we don’t have enough players for the top level.” – January 2024

No one could have said it better: the fact, however bitter, is India does not have enough good players. This isn’t based on the twin results against Afghanistan but the draw and the loss certainly add weight to this assessment.

A majority of India’s players are not seen as good enough to start for their club teams, and the Indian Super League (ISL) isn’t even among the strongest competitions in Asia. The Asian Cup and the ongoing qualifiers have exposed long-standing shortcomings of Indian players – their inability to string together passes, stitch a coherent move, and be bold enough to shoot at goal.

This is true even for the batch of players who played in the 2017 U-17 World Cup, considered the most travelled and well-coached youth team in Indian football history.

Afghanistan’s players, for instance, may belong to a war-torn region but they ply their trade in the second or third divisions of mature football nations. India’s footballers, meanwhile, get paid handsomely. Consequently, it quells their thirst to give foreign stints a genuine shot. Indeed, this is assuming they possess the technical skills to be considered good enough to play outside India.

Happy in the cozy, mediocre confines of India’s domestic circuit, the players are often unable to cope with the high intensity and competition of international football. All this begs the question: Is India merely a country of football watchers?

The national team’s ‘promising future’

What Stimac first said: “This is new India.” – October 2019

The U-turn: “How we can (sic) expect more from our boys if we had never in our history qualified for the Asian Cup in U18/U20/U23?” – February 2024

Very early into his India stint, it was clear that Stimac loved playing to the gallery. Nothing captured this better than his euphoric statement after India scored a late goal against Bangladesh in front of a packed Salt Lake Stadium to avoid defeat. “This is new India,” he beamed after a result that would have left any self-respecting coach embarrassed.

But in the giant bubble that Indian football is, everyone involved has bought into the hype. It took five years for Stimac to confront reality. In his Asian Cup postmortem report to the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Stimac wrote, according to the PTI: “How we can (sic) expect more from our boys if we had never in our history qualified for the Asian Cup in U18/U20/U23?”

That is the real problem. India hasn’t yet qualified on merit in an age-group Asian Cup, hinting at a flawed grassroots programme. As a consequence, from the very beginning, India’s youth players are already playing catch-up with their counterparts from more established football nations in the region. This gap only widens as the players move up the ladder because of an imperfect domestic structure in India.

So, unless India consistently begins qualifying for age-group Asian Cups, getting results at the senior level will remain a pipedream.

The Indian Super League

What Stimac first said: “We watched wonderful goals, great action and open football most of the time… thank you once again for making my life easier here.” – March 2021

The U-turn: “The ISL doesn’t bring this kind of pressure. Don’t get me wrong, but there’s no relegation in the ISL. It’s a lot different from playing top-level international football.” – June 2021

Like Stephen Constantine before him, Stimac too was all praise for the ISL in his early days before he realised the limitations of a league without promotion or relegation where Indian players are restricted to support cast.

The closed league structure — there is no promotion or relegation — means matches have no double jeopardy. The pace of the matches is relatively slow and does not prepare them for high-intensity, high-pressure encounters.

The club managers, whose futures rely on results rather than honing Indian players, are happy to utilise imports in crucial positions on the field. Even after 10 years, the ISL hasn’t given the national team an impact player. This is evidenced by the fact that if Sunil Chhetri isn’t on the pitch, the team disintegrates and struggles to score a goal. Even on Tuesday, the moment Chhetri — playing his 150th match and scoring the goal — was substituted, India lost their edge and ended up losing. Barring Sandesh Jhingan or Gurpreet Sandhu, no other experienced or younger players who are superstars in ISL have shown leadership on field in India colours.

And unless there is a course-correction, the situation remains bleak as most franchises run their youth programmes as an obligation rather than an investment for the future.

Changing goalposts

What Stimac first said: “You know what is in January next year… The most important time for us is December. All this, forget it.” – June 2023

The U-turn: “For us, the most important thing is the World Cup qualifier… I don’t consider the Asian Cup as such an important tournament for us.” – November 2023

The ISL clubs have not only not performed their primary duty of producing players but the league has, according to Stimac, also been a hindrance when it comes to preparing the national team for big competitions. India’s players, he says, take time in switching between the club and national team styles, unlike the evolved football countries where the players’ game IQ is higher.

Stimac has demanded longer preparatory camps to get the players settled into his style but the clubs and league organisers, citing FIFA rules, have, to a large extent, ignored his pleas.

Also Read | FIFA World Cup qualifiers: Why losing to Afghanistan is a new-low for Indian football

But they will do well to read the room. As witnessed in other sports, nothing ignites passion and unites people more than a solid national team performance.

The clubs must realise that their fate is intertwined with India’s. The hundreds of crores they collectively spend every season will count for nothing if the league does not help produce the next generation of young players who can add value to the national team.

Stimac wants a longer camp before India’s next match against Kuwait in June and he will get it because it’ll be off-season then. The Croat has said he’ll quit if India doesn’t reach Round 3 of the Qualifiers. That might satisfy the fans but it won’t fix Indian football’s deep-rooted problems.

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