“My soul is still there,” says Igor Stimac.
Indian football is enjoying its time in the sun now with their sustained good performances grabbing headlines and pulling huge crowds to the stadiums.
For Stimac, who had come under heavy criticism time and again, this will feel like a validation of a process he started four years ago.
How have the past few weeks been for you? With the national team doing well and winning?
When we are united and ready to get behind the national team, we can achieve things. You could see the unity clearly, but it was provoked by our displays, performances and results. Lot of hard work over the four years.
The mandate presented to you when you came was to change the Indian national team’s style of football. How was that process?
Our primary goal was to awaken football in India. How are we going to do that?
(By) Making radical changes in the style of play because kick-and-chase football has gone down a long time ago. To change that, to come out of that comfort zone, we needed a long process of selecting players, working with them to understand what was needed, making sure their muscle strength and endurance all goes up and their game understanding and decision-making gets quicker. It is a process and takes time.
I am enjoying the situation (now), but I am not too happy about it. Euphoria is going on there, that is not good. Euphoria and disappointment, it’s a disaster. We need to be realistic.
What we have achieved is wonderful. But lots of hard work needs to start again – yesterday, not tomorrow. We need to make plans for the next four years on how to deal with problems and help Indian football grow. No time to relax.
Can you talk about the process involved in changing the style?
It was a journey of a lot of sacrifices, precise and detailed work which involved work on the mental side and changing of the mindset.
(It involved) work on the training pitch, on drills, when we were provided time with players to work on the connected movements. Football is about making decisions together and understanding your teammate in the best possible way so you know where to go and when to receive the ball in a comfortable situation.
To get to a point where that football can function well, you need time to work with the boys. Now it is proved again why I kept saying we need longer camps to make this team functional and exciting.
You spoke about changing the mindset of the players. What does that mean?
Analysing player profiles, getting to know their characters, and making a clear analysis of their capacity to perform well at the international level. That process took us the first two years, you can see now why we opened the doors to so many players. It was a sacrifice that was needed to make a wide pool of players we can count on.
The players understood what we are trying to achieve, but they did not have the capacity. We were always asking for longer camps to make sure our players came to a fitness level where they can match our primary goals and that is exciting, high-press football, and intensity throughout the game.
It is clear that we can achieve such things. This style of play was not chosen without reason. This was the only way to make sure there was pressure and lots of things happening on the pitch. The games become interesting and attract people to the stadium and TV screens.
Few players told me that they now have the confidence to stick to this style of football against any side, with no fear…
It is a football game, why should we fear? That is what I insist on from the very beginning – “Please enjoy your football.” Only through the mistakes are you strengthening success. Life of success is full of falls.
We should play fearless football, and have a clear mind about how to get out and challenge ourselves. We lose, then we lose. We go on. If we keep going, a point will come when they fear us.
One of the hallmarks of this run was getting that cleansheet record. Is that a focus you’ve had? And how much has Mahesh Gawli helped in this?
Mahesh is a huge help. He was a great centre back and he understands the game well. He helps players help understand.
But our (good) defensive record started a long time ago. Defensively, we had the best World Cup qualifier and we had Oman and Qatar in our group. That was the initial point of our work.
Solid defensive lines, compact lines, press on the player with the ball in our half, not opening the gaps and flanks, defending crosses… the team defended with unity. That is how you stabilise, not conceding goals. Then you work on attacking.
What is the work that goes on in attacking? How much freedom is there for the players in attacking third?
When we discuss as coaches, we are helping the players through sessions and drills. We can show you how to get to the final third, then it is up to you.
The goals we scored in the tournaments now were all from the drills we were doing in the training session – triangles on the flanks with a good combination, through balls, getting behind, low passes between the keeper and defenders, pullbacks to the penalty box, players running in and following the action. It’s simple as that. But you need players to make sure the final touch for the goal is a killer one.
There are a lot of players coming into the team, rotating and doing well. Have you found your settled team?
There is a clear structure of responsibility and accountability in each position. Whoever comes in, he knows what to do and what to provide from that position. It is also important that our players follow our levels of strength conditioning and programmes given to them. They know the levels and they cannot come lower than that for the National team.
I don’t mind what they do at the clubs, I respect what they are working there. But their body fat, weight, endurance, agility, explosive power… these cannot drop. They are immediately out.
That is why we execute tests in the first two days at the camp. That is why I always give a long list of players who are invited because some of them are not understanding how important fitness levels are to playing high-intensity football.
So whoever is not fulfilling the levels given, he cannot be part of the team. We have a manifesto, which will be published very soon. You will see the requirements, what players need to understand, and what sacrifices they need to do to become part of the national team.
You have used both Amrinder Singh and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu during these games. Are you figuring out who is your number one?
They are both number one, that is what I can tell you after these games. There are very small details (regarding who plays) from the point of view of who we are going to face. We used these games to make sure we gave them opportunities and make sure that none of them got too comfortable. They are pushing each other and to be successful we need players competing daily.
We have two first-choice keepers. We are looking for a third-choice keeper, which might be one of the young boys because we need to make sure that we think of the future.
There was a lot of chatter about Sivasakthi not making the team…
After that injury (in the ISL final), he did not come back to the form that had put him on the list of national team candidates.
He knows what he needs to do on the nutrition side. He is a valuable player for Indian football. It is important for him to not do what many young players do. They have a great season and they disappear. You attract attention with a good few months of football.
Continuity is the most important to be a regular player for the national team.
How are you looking at the next six months or so in the run-up to the Asian Cup?
The problem at the moment is we cannot start planning anything yet. We depend on the ISL calendar and it is not out officially. We have Asian Games also which is not in the FIFA window, so we need to see how to overcome that challenge. We have the October FIFA window and November World Cup qualifiers.
For our success at the Asian Cup, June is not (the most) important. September, October, or November is not (the most) important. The most important is December, just before the Asian Cup. How much time do you get to prepare to obtain the high-intensity level which we were producing in June?
Please do everything to try and get at least four weeks of preparation camp before the Asian Cup. The league does not need to stop. At least give us a chance to provide good and exciting football in Asian Cup.
We cannot go there unprepared.
There have been talks about your future with the team of late as well. Would you like to stay after the Asian Cup?
It is wonderful to change haters into lovers, but it doesn’t last. The same will happen again after a few defeats, lovers will become haters and critics.
It is important what AIFF officials, the technical board, committees, and the president thinks about my job.
It is clear to me that we need to discuss our future together in the next few weeks, not in January.