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Indian Football Team’s Poor Show in Bahrain: Blame the System, Not Coach Igor Stimac

There cannot be any better training than playing competitive matches. Indian footballers hardly get to play matches in a given season -- just 20 matches in a league that has no pressure of relegation. The weaknesses come out glaring when they turn up for the national side.
India vs Belarus football friendly match

Indian football team players ahead of their international friendly against Belarus in Bahrain.

In January 2021, the executive committee of the Football Federation of Belarus met to arrive at a decision that evoked mixed reactions in the football fraternity. In a sweeping change, it approved a set of new regulations that limited the maximum fixed monthly salaries, bonuses and other remuneration for footballers of major league clubs in the country.

Among the major changes were: 

  1. Rs. 3.50 lakh (excluding bonuses) is the monthly salary ceiling of a player in the Belarusian championship. 
  2. Only the footballers of the Belarusian national team are permitted to receive this sum. These players must have participated in at least 50% of international matches in the last two years.
  3. The monthly spend on players’ salary for each team should not exceed Rs. 35 lakh.
  4. The salary for a head coach should not exceed Rs. Two lakh. Salaries of assistant coaches are limited to Rs. One lakh. These figures, however, are excluding bonuses. 

The decision certainly made the Belarus footballers poorer. In financial terms. The move was bitterly criticised as it affected a section of the top footballers. It has also been claimed in some quarters that clubs have found ways to bypass the law.

But nothing really changed from the point of view of performance or skills. A few days ago in Bahrain, Belarus, who once rose to the FIFA ranking of 36 and is currently placed 94, ran rings around Igor Stimac’s India to win 3-0. Given their supremacy in the match, Belarus could have easily scored a few more against India, a side packed with footballers, who command highly impressive pay cheques at the domestic level.

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Well, let’s not talk about someone else’s salary – that’s improper and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It is better to shift to the structure of Belarus football. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, Belarus became an independent nation and its league began in 1992. In comparison to India, Belarus is a tiny nation -- geographically, India is 16 times bigger. But not so in footballing terms.

Having started 30 years ago, the Belarus league is a three-tier competition. It has 16 teams in the premier league, 15 in the first division and 16 in the second division. At the end of the season, two bottom clubs from the premier league, like in most leagues across the world, get relegated and two teams from the second division make the top grade. The promotion-relegation system is also followed in the lower divisions.

Apart from the league, the teams also play in the Super Cup and few other tournaments. On an average, a footballer in Belarus plays around 40 to 50 matches in a season. Things are different in India, where the sport structure goes back more than a hundred years. Top players in India get to play not more than 25 matches a season.

In the tour of Bahrain, where India played two matches, losing both against Bahrain and Belarus, Stimac’s boys didn’t really inspire confidence. Experts back in India pointed out both the rivals were ranked higher than India; so, the defeats were expected against superior sides. It happened during the period when Balkan nation North Macedonia knocked out five-time champions Italy from the World Cup.

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A former India footballer recently backed the existing system in India saying footballers here receive “proper five-star facilities” in the country’s premier league. He wasn’t far from the truth, but he didn’t explain whether it was the prime criteria for improvement.

Not every quality footballer around the world enjoys “five-star facilities” even when they perform exceptionally for their respective club or the country. The football system in Senegal is not exactly the best in the world, yet they qualified for the World Cup for the second time in a row. A handful of Senegal footballers, like Sadio Mane, do play in Europe and earn handsomely. Not everybody. A local league level footballer in Senegal sometimes earns only a couple of hundred dollars a week. But they play competitive football a lot, certainly more than 25 matches a season. So, they improve.

Igor Stimac is being accused of making too many changes in every outing India played under him so far. It happened against Belarus too. He made seven changes from the team that played against Bahrain. It hardly made an impact on the result. If youngsters like Roshan Singh or Hormipam Ruivah were considered few positives India found from the tour, then it was only marginal. 

Indian defence had been a cause of worry for Stimac for a long time. The two-match series against Bahrain and Belarus could hardly solve the issue despite the fact that Stimac tried with at least 10 defenders in 180 minutes available. Some played only in patches and some looked out of depth -- not one of them could display the confidence and tactical ability the Croatian coach was desperately looking for.

Nothing better could be said about Indian midfield or attack. The only goal India scored in the tour was the result of a header by central defender Rahul Bheke, off a fine centre by debutant Roshan Singh, also a defender, who substituted as a winger. Against Belarus, India didn’t create a single positive opportunity. Minus Sunil Chhetri, the Indian attack looked out of breath -- if Manvir Singh or Rahim Ali couldn’t do what they were expected to, then Liston Colaco was the biggest disappointment. There is always a difference between domestic and international football; the ATK Mohun Bagan winger realised it the hard way. 

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“International football is more demanding especially when we are playing higher ranked teams. There is a huge difference in the energy levels. I understand the players are mentally exhausted from staying in a bio bubble for long. But I want my players to get used to such energy levels of playing in international football,” Stimac said while in Bahrain. 

What he didn’t say (or didn’t want to say) is that relentless training is the key to excellence in football. And there cannot be any better training than playing competitive matches. Indian footballers, however talented they are, hardly get to play matches in a given season. All the opportunities they receive is about playing around 20 matches in a league that has no pressure of relegation. Stimac is doing his best, but the ‘energy level’ he is talking about would be hard to come by in the present system.

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