Igor Stimac: Indian team has changed from kick and chase football to a more possession based game

WION Web Team
New Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Digvijay Singh DeoUpdated: Jun 08, 2020, 04:52 PM IST
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India National Team coach Igor Stimac, in an exclusive interview with WION’s Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, discussed how the pandemic impacted his plans, the structure of Indian football and much more.

India National Team coach Igor Stimac, in an exclusive interview with WION’s Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, discussed how the pandemic impacted his plans, the structure of Indian football and much more.

Digvijay Singh Deo: Igor, how have you been through this entire period?

Igor Stimac: The coronavirus crisis has created a multitude of problems all over the world, many countries, including India and Croatia, are suffering. Fortunately, the situation in Croatia is improving, the lockdown measures here have been eased and we are trying to return to somewhat of a normal life.

DSD: From what I have been reading, Croatia seems to have handled this crisis very well. Just above 2000 cases and deaths limited to under 100.

Igor Stimac: Yes, our government deserves the praise of how proactive they have been during this crisis. However, we are also blessed that we are a small country and so not have a very dense population, hence it was easier for us to isolate and remain in a secure environment.

DSD: Even the football season is about to resume at the end of this month in your country...

Igor Stimac: It has been announced that the Croatian league will begin at the end of May, which is fantastic news. There will be no crowd at the venues, it is important that we do not put anyone's health at risk. The return of the league is great news not just for the football league, but also for sport in Croatia in general. People have been desperate for top-level competitions and I'm delighted that they will get to see some action.

DSD: Lots of debate surrounding the leagues at the moment, if leagues should freeze the table and end the season as we have seen in Holland and France, or resume matches so that the campaign can be completed, the English premier league is attempting to deal with that issue right now and there is obviously a lot of money involved.

Igor Stimac: These are highly lucrative leagues and the authorities are losing money on a daily basis while the leagues remain suspended. So, even playing the game behind closed doors would be highly beneficial for the major leagues in Europe. In Croatia, the situation is completely different, we are a much smaller country and it is easier to hold matches here in a bio-secure environment. We are all missing top-level football and I just hope that all the players return to action very soon.

DSD: The next few months seem to be a big worry now in your country which sees a lot of tourists come in. The economy needs the money but people coming in also present a health’s a tightrope isn't it...

Igor Stimac: It is a huge problem for Croatia but hopefully we will go through this period without many economic difficulties. One-third of Croatia's income comes from tourism. Every summer, thousands of people come to the country and get a taste of the culture, food and the stunning scenic beauty.  There is a discussion to declare Croatia a COVID-19 free country, which will allow tourists to enter and boost the economy. Hopefully, that will be possible by July and we can get some money pumping into the economy.

Igor Stimac: Indian team has changed from kick and chase football to a more possession based game

DSD: As things start opening up, everyone will have to grapple with that decision, what is the balance between money and health?

Igor Stimac: Yes, it is a very delicate situation. Every government needs to protect its own people, inviting people from those countries which have been greatly affected by the crisis into Croatia, can endanger our own population. This is the concern with opening up international travel. These decisions have to be taken by the government while keeping the best interests of the people in mind.

DSD: We just saw the german Bundesliga season resume this past weekend - and it felt almost surreal to see the empty stadiums, hear the echoes of the ball being kicked around, the coaches yelling instructions from the touchline... What are your thoughts on what appears to be football's new reality for at least the next few months?

Igor Stimac: We need to get used to a new way of life, a new way of playing and watching football. This is going to be 'the new normal' for a while now, we cannot change it and must accept the situation. We need to be disciplined and cautious so that the second wave of the virus does not affect a large number of people. Football is very close to all our hearts but it's not the most important thing in the world. The health and safety of people has to be the ultimate priority. Let's follow the health protocols and fulfil our duties as global citizens.

DSD: As an elite manager, do you think that teams and players will have to prepare any differently for matches in this sort of environment? Because we're expecting leagues across the continent to also restart behind closed doors next month, how do teams adapt to that?

Igor Stimac: I think the players will miss the atmosphere in the stadiums, there is a certain adrenaline rush that players get when they step out in a stadium in front of the fans, but in terms of the way the game is played, it is not going to be that different. I believe that we are going to see more injuries because the break was very long and players have not had time to return to their peak fitness. The European players are not used to such a long break of two months. I was joking that if there is someone that will benefit from this COVID-19 break then it is Indian football as we are used to long breaks.we have a break of 6-7 months every year and we should not have a problem with injuries as the players are used to this pause.

DSD: This month last year was when you first took charge of the Indian football team...How do you feel about your first 12 months in the job.

Igor Stimac: I am more excited than I was 12 months back. We have proved that we can change many many things in such a short period of time. The task was not easy to change from a 'kick and chase' style of football to a more possession-based game. We have introduced many young players with more technical abilities. It was not easy and we knew we were going to suffer but this was the only way to stabilise the results in the future.we are building up a new team which should achieve its peak in the next 4-5 years.we have 25 players who are between 18-23 yeas old. I am not happy with regards to the results as we were expecting some more points from the qualification tournament .looking back we did not take our opportunities. I thought we could surprise Oman but lack of experience and lack of charismatic decisions on the field cost us.india is no longer the team that loses easy games, but we are not scoring enough goals either. All three goals we scored from qualifiers came from set-pieces.i am feeling depressed and tired at repeatedly saying we have to reduce the number of foreign players in Indian domestic football. It will take time to grow as a football nation, the season has to be longer for players to play more games than they currently play. If the government can change the citizenship regulations then we can get 7-8 players of Indian origin who are playing abroad and that would change our results dramatically.

Igor Stimac: Indian team has changed from kick and chase football to a more possession based game

DSD: Indian football undoubtedly needs structural changes, where do you see Indian football in five years, what is your road-map?

Igor Stimac: we have been working behind closed doors on many aspects. One is regarding the selection of players. We have been talking to the government to change the citizenship regulations. There is a need to change the system of grassroots football as well so that a high number of youngsters start playing the game. Parallelly, we were also in touch with football sports development limited to increase the length of the season and also to have a long term calendar season plus the need to restructure the Durand Cup and the super cup. Going forward what will be crucial is the number of games in a campaign. We cannot stop our season at the end of February and football needs to be played until mid-may. I am told that it cannot happen as it overlaps with the broadcast of the IPL, but broadcast is not that important, what is crucial s that players play more games to improve their football and bring more quality to the national team.

DSD: What will the overall impact of the coronavirus be on Indian football - World Cup qualifiers in March and June have been cancelled, rest of the calendar looking grim.

Igor Stimac: The pandemic has destroyed the plans we had made which were accepted by both the government and the AIFF. We were to go on pre-season training camps to turkey and Croatia in April and May and we were supposed to play ten friendly games. As I said before, this break should not affect our national team to a great extent. We are now using this time to improve the education of our players including theoretical points and I am very happy that the players are all following individual training plans that we have sent them and communicating daily on our team groups.

DSD: You were, of course, part of a golden generation of Croatian football - the team that took the country to their first major tournaments after independence...Would you say your third-placed finish on World Cup debut in 1998 arguably had an even bigger impact on Croatian football than the runner-up spot from two years ago?

Igor Stimac: It was a special tournament. It was the first time we played in a world cup in 1998 as a nation and our performances stunned the entire world, but as a team, we weren't surprised at all. Six of the players, including me, were part of the team that won the u-20 world championship in 1987, so we were confident in our abilities and knew that we could reach the latter stages of the tournament. Many people are now comparing the 1998 and 2018 sides and pitting them against each other. I believe that if there was a hypothetical match between the two sides, my 1998 team would win, but then again I might be a bit biased. There is no doubt that both teams had a great impact on Croatia. Both of those teams are filled with world-class players and it is incredible that a small nation like Croatia was able to do so well at the world cup. It's not just football, Croatia has a fantastic sporting culture. There are 100 Olympic medalists in my city, split, which has a population of about 180,000. It just shows how talented we are as a nation. It is such a stark contrast when you compare it to India, which has a population of over a billion people but has won less than 30 Olympic medals.

Igor Stimac: Indian team has changed from kick and chase football to a more possession based game

DSD: After the heroics at the 2018 World Cup - Croatia would no doubt have gone into the Euros that were supposed to be held this summer with expectations sky-high. We know the tournament has been pushed back by a year - how do you think that impacts Croatia's chances especially with stars like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, - even Ivan Perisic to an extent - not getting any younger.

Igor Stimac: Talented youngsters are moving up in the ranks of Croatian football, so as a fan or as a coach for that matter., I'm not really worried about the future. Modric, Mandzukic and Rakitic have been wonderful servants to the country, but the future of Croatian football is in safe hands. Whenever the young players have been called upon to the national team, they have always performed very well and sometimes even better than the experienced ones. The young players are great prospects and they have the hunger to excel at the highest level. I believe that sometimes you benefit from throwing the youngsters in the line of fire.

DSD: Since we are talking about the euros - can I get you to discuss who you think are realistic title contenders for the tournament? Do you see the break in football due to the coronavirus this year have any sort of lasting impact 12 to 15 months later?

Igor Stimac: It is difficult for me to say what the situation will look like 12-15 months from now. It definitely is going to be a long break for many countries. I just hope that there aren't many injuries and teams are able to bring their full strength squads to the tournament. I'm looking forward to the fact that all of us will be able to celebrate the game once again. I can only speculate on how different teams will be heading into the euros, but what is important is to stand united and celebrate the game.

DSD: Will this pandemic though has un-intended positive consequences. The big money transfers are likely to be stalled this year so clubs will have to rely on homegrown talent.

Igor Stimac: It could have long term consequences for the clubs in India. The pandemic could see certain rules and regulations changed globally, which results in clubs relying more on their home-grown players. This is the perfect opportunity for India to dramatically change the structure of football in the country. Half the ISL clubs are facing financial difficulties and if all the clubs are not on the same level financially, then what is the point of the competition? The competition is high only if everyone starts with the same amount of money and is under the framework of the same regulations.