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FIFA World Cup Qualifiers: Postponement of India Matches Spells Disaster for Igor Stimac’s Preparations

The Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC’s) decision to postpone India’s FIFA World Cup qualifier against Qatar may be a sensible move considering the Coronavirus crisis. The new schedule is expected to be in September and coach Igor Stimac has a headache.
Indian football team FIFA World Cup qualifier new schedule and its impact

After India football team’s draw against Bangladesh, Igor Stimac wanted an emergency national camp before the tie against Afghanistan. It was denied because it would have clashed with the Indian Super League (Picture: AIFF).

The postponement of India’s World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualifier against Qatar on March 26 couldn’t have come at a worse time. It could badly hit the preparations of Igor Stimac’s boys; even after the deadly coronavirus has spread across and impacted all sectors across the world . 

The official communication from All India Football Federation (AIFF) made clear the deferment of the Qatar game. But it made no mention of the next two games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan (June 4 and 9). However, sources say these two outings can also stand postponed.

If so, it might spell further trouble for India. 

From the point of view of preparations, the original schedule was well suited for India. The curtain will come down on ISL 2019-20 on March 14. Stimac would have found enough time to prepare his boys -- who would have also been match fit. A longer camp would have given him time to plug holes which were embarrassingly evident in earlier two outings against Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

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The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is yet to announce a revised schedule. But there is every chance the India-Qatar match could be played in the first or second week of October. India’s next two games may be slotted in the first fortnight of November. 

Such a scenario would hardly please Stimac. Holding a fairly long national camp in September is beyond comprehension. The next edition of the ISL is likely to kick-off in October. All franchises will be busy in pre-season training. And the country’s top league will be in full flow in the month of November.

The club versus national team tug-of-war is a worldwide phenomenon in football. India is no exception.    

The FIFA rule clearly says: “A club holding the registration of a player called up to play in the national team must release him to the national association on the fixed/set dates for international matches in each calendar year.”

At the same time, the rule also specifies: “If the player is called up to play in a qualifying match for an international competition, this period shall be 4 days (including the day of the match). The period of release shall be prolonged to 5 days if the match in question is held on a different continent to that on which the club is domiciled.”

The rule effectively kills any chance of Stimac holding a longer national camp. Unless the clubs voluntarily decide to release footballers in “national interest.” Going by past experience, such a scenario is unlikely.

Former India coach Sukhwinder Singh once said: “In Indian football, to play a serious international tournament without a fortnight-long national camp is suicidal.” He wasn’t far from the truth. But then, who cares about truth anymore?

Last year, after the debacle against Bangladesh (1-1) in Kolkata, a worried Stimac wanted an unscheduled week-long camp before the away tie against Afghanistan. It wasn’t possible since it meant postponement of an entire round of the ISL.

Stimac’s demand was stonewalled. Fine and understood. But it kicked off an unsavory controversy. An unnamed source in AIFF’s marketing agent company described the coach as “unprofessional.” On record. No one in the AIFF came in support of the national coach.

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The tendency of clubs in India to strictly follow the rule book when it comes to release of players for the national team is increasingly on the high. In 2017, then national coach Stephen Constantine learned this the hard way before their World Cup qualifier against Oman. The now defunct Delhi franchise and its celebrated Brazilian coach Roberto Carlos released their footballers only 72 hours before the Muscat game. 

Well, one can’t blame the clubs. They have the rule book on their side. Firmly. Only problem is, the rules are mostly framed keeping in mind the scenario in Europe. It doesn’t always fit well in a country like India. 

The only silver lining is that the June games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan have not yet been officially postponed. The AIFF press release said: “Meanwhile the continental apex body (the AFC) further mentioned that upon mutual agreement, the respective countries can decide to play as per the pre-decided schedule should the safety and health concerns are taken care of.”

So far, the AIFF is believed to have made no attempt to keep alive the original schedule for June. To do so would be an excellent idea. With the season over and no sign of  the Super Cup in sight, Stimac can at least go about doing some repair work in a two-week national camp.

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