Igor Stimac wasn’t exactly inspiring much confidence when he and the Indian football team left for the SAFF Championship in Male last month. He had a difficult task in hand – he was expected to return home with the trophy without being given an opportunity to hold a preparatory camp.
Stimac’s stocks crashed further when India failed to overcome the challenges of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the first two matches. As fear gripped that it could turn out to be India’s worst ever showing in the south Asian meet, there were speculations on Stimac’s immediate replacements as the national coach.
In the end, the Croatian coach achieved something which many of his famous foreign predecessors failed to match. He is only the second foreign coach after Jiri Pesek to guide India to SAFF title when the championship was held abroad. Pesek did it in the inaugural edition in 1993 in Lahore, a feat only to be repeated after 28 years by Stimac.
In between, four other highly-rated foreign coaches – Rustam Ahkramov, Stephen Constantine, Bob Houghton and Wim Koevermans – found their reputations severely dented in a tournament where India remained eternal favourites from the day it was envisaged. Under them, India suffered ignominious defeats in the hands of much lower-ranked opponents.
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The Croatian probably was aware of the past. He knew the SAFF Championship always looked like an easy beat from a distance, but it had too many traps, especially for a team like India. He was under tremendous pressure from the beginning, and the coach, in turn, did not spare anyone -- from the media to supervising officials. His smiling face minutes after India’s 3-0 victory over Nepal in the final didn’t give the usual impression of a proud, triumphant coach. Instead, the body language carried a sense of relief when he shook hands with his staff on the bench.
Late in the night, a member of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) technical committee said he wasn’t thoroughly impressed by what India performed in Male. “A title victory is always a victory, I know it never comes easily. So, I must congratulate the boys for what they achieved,” said the member.
“At the same time, I was disappointed by India’s level of performance. I expected them to control the midfield and have more thrust in attack. After all, we played against a bunch of lowly-ranked sides in the entire tournament,” he added.
All technical committee members, it is believed, are not fully convinced by what Stimac did since taking over the reins of India’s national team in May 2019. But for that, they should look at themselves and at the bosses, who formulate the policy.
In SAFF, Stimac was like the ill-equipped general, who was asked to win a battle. For the first time in many years, India entered SAFF without a preparatory camp – the coach had his players assembled less than 48 hours before leaving for Maldives.
SAFF is not the end of it. Stimac has yet another tricky task in hand almost immediately. The coach is supposed to lead India’s Asian under-23 Group E qualifiers campaign in the UAE from October 23. Pitted against strong teams like Oman, hosts UAE and Kyrgyz Republic, India will participate without any preparations – the players will assemble in Bangalore on October 17 and leave for UAE three days later. It is difficult to imagine the national federation is serious about achieving a decent result. The pre-season training of clubs and franchises takes the top spot in the priority list, it seems.
The coach knows it well, but he is in no position to open his mouth. Instead, he has targeted the media and the social media platforms – it is probably the easiest way to vent his frustrations. Full credit to him for what he did with the team in SAFF. He was lucky there, and also was helped by lack of quality opposition. Things would be different when the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers begin.
Now the question is, who rescued India? Stimac or Sunil Chhetri? Having scored five out of India’s eight goals in Male, the 37-year-old skipper has once again emerged the national team’s best player, far ahead of his juniors when it comes to delivering in crucial matches. Going by the statistics, Chhetri has equalled Lionel Messi’s goal scoring record in international football. In reality, he has rescued the national team more than anyone else in the history of Indian football; this being said keeping all the legends in mind. Of the five goals he scored in Male, the best certainly was the one that came through his angular header against Maldives in the final group match; his quick and decisive response as the ball dipped into the box could have easily left many of his younger colleagues embarrassed.
Overall, India didn’t achieve too much from their eighth title triumph in SAFF apart from the satisfaction of maintaining their regional hegemony. The lack of standard in SAFF championship is slowly becoming painful to watch. It does give a feeling the very purpose of SAFF football has somehow been defeated. Football in some of the SAFF nations in the early part this century was tougher and livelier. It definitely calls for a reconstruction of the system.
India’s biggest gain from SAFF was their players finally had a chance to play under pressure, a situation they rarely face at the domestic level these days. It was heartening to find the boys register three back-to-back wins after being pushed to the brink of elimination.
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Six goals came in the last two matches, but India’s best time was the final 45 minutes in the final. This was the period in which India truly dominated the show, something they should have actually done throughout the meet. More important was the way youngsters like Suresh Wangjam and Sahal Abdul Samad found the target (though only after Chhetri broke the deadlock) – it must have come as a huge relief for the skipper himself.
Last but not the least – will Stimac now finally be able to make up his mind on his starting XI? After more than two years at the helm, the Croatian legend seems still unconvinced about the ability of his boys; not once in the five matches in SAFF did he field the same team. The recent triumph in Maldives, however small in nature it could be, will hopefully allow the coach to regain his confidence – not on his boys, but on himself.
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