Igor Stimac walked into the interview room with a list of 36 players whom he intended to select if chosen as the new India coach. Whether it was the confidence of getting the job or a way to flaunt his preparation for it, one can’t say. But his meticulous research was enough for the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to choose him as Stephen Constantine’s successor, despite a mediocre recent track record.
Constantine, whose contract expired in January, did not seek an extension after India bowed out of the Asian Cup at the group stage. Under the Englishman, who was in charge for four years, India made considerable improvement; stitching together an impressive run of results that ended with a performance at the continental championship that was good in patches. Stimac, the AIFF hopes, will take the 101-ranked national team to the ‘next level.’
Stimac, 51, was a defensive pillar of Croatia’s 1998 World Cup team, along with Slaven Bilic, and was regarded as one of the leaders of the legendary side, which finished third – their best-ever World Cup result before finishing runners-up in Russia last year. He then went on to become Croatia’s coach in 2012. During Stimac’s 15-month stint, Croatia leapfrogged to a world ranking of 4, behind Spain, Germany and Argentina and he led them to the 2014 World Cup qualifying playoffs.
In October 2013, he resigned as Croatia’s manager following a string of poor results during the qualifying campaign. Since then, he’s gone on to coach club sides in Croatia, Iran and Qatar but with little success. His modest coaching record was fiercely scrutinised by the AIFF technical committee, which interviewed him and three other candidates – Spain’s Albert Roca, Sweden’s Hakan Ericson and South Korea’s Lee Min-sung – on Thursday. The newly-appointed technical director, Isac Doru, too was present in the meeting.
When the search for Stephen Constantine’s successor began in January, Roca was considered a frontrunner because of the success he achieved as Bengaluru FC manager and his in-depth knowledge of Indian football as well as players. It is learnt that a couple of members of the Shyam Thapa-led technical committee were in favour of handing over the reins of the national team to Roca.
However, a committee member said his presentation was ‘disappointing’ and some of his answers were ‘generic’. “He has been successful at a club level but does not have the experience of coaching a national team. Also, at the club level, there was a certain degree of comfort and he had better resources. But with the national team, it’s a lot more chaotic and the conditions at times are adverse. We asked him if would be able to cope with those challenges and his answer was very generic,” the official said.
The lack of experience of coaching a senior national team was also the reason Ericson, the former coach of Sweden’s under-21 team, was not considered. Lee, a defender who represented South Korea in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, spoke in detail about his plans for the national team, stressing on the importance of strengthening defence.
“Lee gave an example of a defensive error in the Thailand match (at the Asian Cup this year) that led to a goal. He said India has good wingers, and if defence was further strengthened, there was a lot of scope. He had read the Indian game strongly,” the member said.
Lee, the current coach of South Korea’s under-23 team, has worked with some of the best Asian clubs, including Guangzhou Evergrande and Ulsan Hyundai. However, his inability to converse in fluent English earned him a negative marking.
Stimac had a lot of things going his way, but what impressed AIFF the most was his research on the Indian players. It is learnt that he arrived at the interview with a list of 36 players who he’d want in his squad. In his presentation, he spoke about some of the established names of Indian football as well as a few who’ve been on the fringe.
“He said Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu) was a sharp goalkeeper, was impressed with (winger) Udanta (Singh’s) pace, (defender Sandesh) Jhingan’s strength and (Sunil) Chhetri’s scoring ability. At the same time, he said we should look at players like (midfielder) Vinit Rai and spoke about how he can be utilised better in the central positions. His research was thorough,” the AIFF official said.
Stimac was grilled about his poor success rate as a manager. Back home, he’d received some flak during his spell with Croatia while the stints before and after that term did not inspire the technical committee. In his defence, Stimac is believed to have said that he was handed over teams in the relegation zone midway through the season and consequently, could not build his sides. “It showed that he has worked in adverse conditions. He knows what it takes to coach a national team and having played at the highest level, he understands a player’s mindset. He is the perfect candidate,” the technical committee member said.
Stimac’s appointment is likely to be ratified by AIFF’s executive committee within a week. The national camp is expected to start in Delhi on May 20 while India’s first assignment under the coach-designate will be against Caribbean nation Curacao, ranked 82 in the world, in the Kings Cup in Buriram, Thailand, on June 5.