How new coach Igor Stimac wants to turn India into a football powerhouse
Igor Stimac knows a thing or two about football.
The 51-year-old Croatian was captain of the thrilling Croatian side that beat Holland to 3rd place at the 1998 World Cup, and as a manager lead Croatia to the 2014 World Cup - with the likes of Real Madrid star Luka Modric - and now he's taken on one of the biggest challenges of his career:
To turn India into an Asian football powerhouse and Olympic qualifier.
“I love great challenges and as far as I can see, football in your wonderful country is a sleeping giant” - Igor Stimac on his new role as coach of India
India's most popular Sport
In a country of 1.4 billion people, football is played in the shadow cast by cricket - king of Indian sports.
And when it comes to participation, football doesn't even play second fiddle to cricket, it's more like 5th behind badminton, cycling, and athletics.
Indian sporting heroes are cricket royalty like Sachin Tandulkar, current cricket captain Virat Kohli, or Olympic legends like hockey 'Wizard' Dyan Chand, Tokyo 2020 boxing gold medal contender Mary Kom, badminton players Sania Nehwal and PV Sindhu, or even sharpshooter Abhinav Bhindra who won India's first ever individual gold at Rio 2016.
India: Olympic and World Cup record
India has won 8 of their 9 Olympic gold medals in field hockey, but have never clinched an Olympic football medal.
The country's best result at an Olympics came in 1956 when they reached the semi finals.
While the Blue Tigers have graced 4 different Olympic Games, the closest the country has ever come to making a World Cup was at Brazil 1950 when India qualified by default after the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma all withdrew.
Brazil practically begged India to come and represent Asia, promising to cover all costs.
The Indian team never arrived.
The reasons why are shrouded in mystery and still debated today.
Wherever the truth lies, the bottom line is that India has never reached a World Cup finals, and haven't been at the Olympics since 1960.
India's football future
Now in 2019 Igor Stimac has been brought in to change the course of history for Indian football.
He takes over from English manager Stephen Constantine after a disappointing 2019 Asian Cup in January.
India started the tournament with gusto by thrashing Thailand 4-1 in their opening game to record their first Asian Cup victory in 55 years.
Even Carlos Quieroz was impressed.
But defeat to the UAE and Bahrain followed, and India crashed out of the tournament finishing bottom of Group A.
The coach walked.
Yet while India didn't shine at the Asian Cup, Constantine did lay some solid foundations that Stimac can build on.
When the Englishman took over from Wim Koevermans in 2015, Indian football was at an all time low.
The Dutchman's 'total football' style had the players baffled, and the team was in free-fall, ranked 173rd in FIFA's world rankings.
Between 2015 and 2019 under Constantine, India shot up to 96th in the world and he introduced a professional, sports science based training and preparation program that focused on bringing young Indian players through the system.
Stimac must elaborate the blueprints for the future.
While football may be down the list in terms of sports participation in India, it is the second most watched sport in the country behind cricket.
Most may be watching foreign football like the English Premier League, but the demand and desire to follow the sport is there - a successful Indian national team could capture the imagination of the country's growing football fan base.
India has great potential and the Croatian coach knows it.
One of the things that has really impressed the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is Stimac's in-depth knowledge of Indian football and the Indian Super League.
“I have seen most of India’s AFC (Asian Football Confederation) games on Arena Sports TV channel and after my candidacy, I have done serious research on the ISL (Indian Super League) and I-League,” Stimac explained to Goal.com.
"He has seen the (Indian) players and knows what to expect," said team captain and leader Sunil Chhetri.
"We are a very hard-working team. From me, the most experienced, to the youngsters, we all give our best to improve every day." India captain Sunil Chhetri
More goals than Messi
Sunil Chhetri is India's talisman, he's scored more international goals than Messi and is excited by the chance to work with Stimac.
"He is a coach who brings a lot of experience to the table and I'm really looking forward to working with him," Chhetri said after the Croat's appointment.
The Indian soccer star is both club team Bengaluru FC and the Indian national team captain, he's India's top scorer of all time, and the most capped Indian player in history.
But he's 34 now, and knows the national side needs new blood and new ideas.
"There are a lot of talented youngsters coming through the ranks for the national team and his experience would benefit us all." Chhetri.
The new man at the helm also understands that the youth is the future:
“I am impressed with your (Indian) players' attitude and with some young players who could become big stars in the future,” said Stimac.
Hitting the ground running
Even before he was officially in place as manager of the team, Stimac was already making decisions:
A young central midfielder should be moved out to a wide position, FC Pune City's 30-year-old factotum Adil Khan had to be in the preliminary squad for the King's Cup in Thailand, and the Croatian already had his eye on a couple of younger players who he wanted in the group.
The new man in charge has a strong track record on identifying and promoting young talent, as national coach of Croatia he handed debuts to the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Ante Rebic, Alen Halilovic, and Ivan Perisic, to name a few.
The Croatian strategist understands how crucial the game at youth level is, he himself was part of the Yugoslavia youth team that won the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1987.
It was an experience that helped launch his and many teammates' careers including Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker, and Robert Prosinecki who went on to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Now the most high profile coach in India's history carries the hopes of an entire nation into his new job.
Stimac isn't just managing a football team, he's also managing the expectations of a fifth of the world's population.
According to the Times of India the new gaffer told AIFF that he will not coach “small-team football" or encourage a defensive mindset.
So what would be success for India, what are the goals for the new manager to set?
The captain of the team knows all about goals, and for him this is what the manager should aim for:
"I think the next long-term goal should be to qualify for the Asian Cup again," Chhetri told Indian newswire IANS.
"That is not going to be easy because lots of things depend on the group you get, the qualifiers, the conditions... you can be unlucky also on several fronts. But that should be our target.
"And if you ask the short-term target, then because the boys are ready, we should try to win as many games as possible. We should win more games than we lose. Another target I have is to see we do well when we travel," he said.
'Captain Fantastic' believes in a young crop coming through the Indian ranks, which have been improved greatly over the past few years.
"Lots of young players in the team are now matured individuals that gives us hope. Like Jeje (Lalpekhlua), Sandesh (Jhingan), Udanta (Singh), Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu), Pritam (Kotal), Thapa were youngsters four years back. Now they are all improved and experienced individuals as footballers."
"Some of them are still young in age but they know how to play international football. (Anirudh) Thapa, Subhasis (Bose) are not too old but have enough experience. Most of them have cemented their places in the national team."
"We are a much better team than we were before. With right guidance from the coach, we can surely do better than what we did previously in the last five years," Chhetri
Qatar - a country of 2.7 million people - won the 2019 Asian Cup, proving that rapid improvement is possible with the right structure, investment and development.
It's up to the Indian FA and Croatian legend Igor Stimac to bring the vision, inspiration, and motivation that might just awaken Asia's sleeping giant.