“Figures often beguile me,” wrote Mark Twain. He then went on to add: “Particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Well, what the great American writer had to say in 1907 can’t perhaps be applicable in all aspects. Not in football, at least. Figures do play a prominent role in victory and defeat in the beautiful game; and statistics are considered part and parcel of the 21st century manuals of the game.
Yet, at times, the numbers lose their relevance in football too. Especially when it is used to cover up shortcomings. On July 19, 2021, Monday, when the technical committee of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) met Igor Stimac via a video conference, the national coach, apparently, bombarded the members with statistics.
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The Croatian provided figures to show that his team’s performance in the recently-concluded pre-World Cup qualifying campaign had far more positives than it was under a different coach for the 2018 World Cup. Stimac maintained his boys were better in all aspects, be in passing accuracy or ball possession.
Stimac was duly handed an extension till September next year, but sources said not everyone was convinced. At least one member did raise a question: he asked whether it was correct to compare the performance of two different times with cold statistics since it hardly proves anything. The coach managed to evade the query by saying he was only trying to point out the improvement his boys made in the last couple of years.
Frankly, the coach didn’t need to work so hard to convince the members in the meeting. The decision to give Stimac an extension was pre-determined – the members knew it well before they switched on their laptops for the call. The news of Stimac’s extension was in the public domain; the meeting was held only to endorse the ruling.
The chairman of the technical committee, Shyam Thapa, said to keep Stimac till the end of Asian Cup qualifiers was the right move. “In this pandemic time, it is not easy to go out and find a new coach. We will end up losing precious time.
“In the next few months, we have AFC Under-23, SAFF Cup and FIFA friendlies. The schedule is packed. Moreover, the present coach has to be given more time. Because of the pandemic, he didn’t get enough time to hold preparatory camps,” said the 1970 Asian Games bronze medallist.
Thapa wasn’t far from the truth. But what he said also creates room for raising a few questions. Has Stimac been given the extension because of the packed schedule and lack of time to find a new coach? Does it mean his performance in the last two years had little to do with his continuation? Thapa defended Stimac by saying the coach achieved the goal of finishing third in the group ahead of Afghanistan and Bangladesh. But to go back to Mark Twain again, Thapa and all his members in the committee know perfectly well how hollow this statistics is.
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However, one is left wondering whether, considering the present circumstances in which Indian football is run, Stimac’s extension could be to hide the establishment’s shortcomings.
It didn’t come as a surprise that India failed to fulfill the expectations in the World Cup qualifiers. Never in history had India made the second rounds of qualifiers – Stimac’s boys were no exceptions. It was yet another miscarriage of the system, blaming the coach would have only exposed the failure of the people who run it.
None in the technical committee asked the federation bosses whether it was really possible to raise a team of international standard when the players played less than 25 domestic matches in a season. They didn’t ask how many days of coaching camp was given to the coach even when the country was not struck by the pandemic. Kudos to the coach for going on record to say too few domestic matches and too many foreigners are spoiling the show.
In the meeting, Stimac was pointedly asked about his lack of options in the striking zone. The coach was right in saying even the few strikers India have are all being made to play in the wings in the top domestic league. Sources claimed the coach spoke about looking at the strikers in the I-League – he wasn’t even averse to the idea of having fewer number of foreigners in I-League teams.
It is hard to understand what the coach actually has in mind – not always his observations match his actions. In Stimac’s two-year tenure so far, only one I-League player has been called to the national camp. The footballer, by then, had already left the I-League and joined an ISL franchise.
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Stimac informed the meeting he was looking forward to making use of the FIFA allotted dates for friendlies. This again sounds like a long shot since arranging a friendly outing is an extremely difficult task in the current situation. Without active support from the government, it is tough to finalise an opposition and a venue.
The Croatian coach may not have too many good results to boast about, but his plans and statistics had always been perfect. It wasn’t any different in the latest meeting too. He even defended his team’s lacklustre show against Bangladesh and Afghanistan saying the neighbouring nations have turned stronger than one generally imagined.
A particular member had something very relevant to say once the meeting was over. “The statistics were impressive. If the comparative study has to be taken into consideration, then this team did slightly better in an easier group. But the previous team made the Asian Cup final rounds. I hope Stimac keeps those figures in mind before he sits down to prepare his next set of statistics.”
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