NEW DELHI: Just over six months to go for the Asian Cup in Qatar, and the All India Football Federation is waking up to the possibility that the senior team coach, Igor Stimac could be proving the weakest link in the system that has only belatedly begun to show signs of improved play.
AIFF secy gen Shaji Prabhakran on Wednesday had a 10-minute conversation over the phone following the coach’s latest expulsion. “We have told him to focus on the game, on the field. It is important for the team to keep producing the kind of football and the level that they have been doing so far. The coach needs to focus on delivering that,” Prabhakaran told TOI.
On Tuesday, captain Sunil Chhetri may have laughed off the Twitter-happy, self-anointed ‘warrior’ Croatian earning his second consecutive red-card, by asking whether the offence was bad enough to invite an internal fine, the truth is that the Indian football authorities are realizing that there’s enough cause for alarm in the coach’s touchline behaviour.
Coach Stimac is a pedigreed footballer and a first-rate analyst of the game. It is also evident that he is passionate about the team he coaches. But it is worrying that he cannot rein himself during a game and breaks rules frequently. How can a coach help his team when he is not by their side during a key match? Two red cards in two games is not acceptable. He must learn to control himself.
The AIFF’s main worry is that Stimac’s over-the-top antics, both against Pakistan in the SAFF Championship opener last week and Kuwait on Tuesday were unprovoked and occurred when the team was in the lead, and that more serious opposition in the future would identify this fragility of temperament as a crack in the system. “It is very possible that this would have been noticed by India’s Asian Cup opponents and they will work to target him,” said an official.
The federation is worried that with a busy international calendar ahead for India in the run-up to the Jan 2024 Asian Cup — King’s Cup, Merdeka, pre-World Cup qualifiers –such behaviour could become a pattern and hence a liability. “He shouldn’t become the weak link in a system that’s showing signs of shaping up well,” said the official.
“It is not as if his team was trailing 4-0 and that he was frustrated. This is a home tournament where this has happened, you are not even the visiting team’s coach,” he pointed out.
“A team cannot be leader-less in this fashion,” the official said, adding, “Especially if it’s only now that they have begun to show some shape and playing well. This is when the team needs their leader the most and such actions are detrimental to the system. It does not inspire confidence.”
Prabhakaran had earlier too spoken to Stimac after his opening game red card against Pakistan since the offence was seen as completely needless given how India had been dominating the game. Those in the know say that AIFF secy general’s message had revolved around Stimac’s failure to read the room and demanded more sensitivity from the 1998 World Cup third-place winner. “In the first red card, he should have shown more awareness given the nature and sensitive nature of the tie. It’s Pakistan and everything that comes with the clash, he cannot go and rouse emotions like he did, or even make it about himself.”
The other cause of concern is the apparent meltdown once there has been a semblance of increase in workload. “Suddenly there have been a lot more international competitive games than what India is used to and then this behaviour by the coach who has played at the highest level,” said the official.
What did not go down well with the AIFF brass was a defiant Stimac tweeting afterwards that he would do it again since he is a warrior and it was his duty “to protect the boys from unjustified decisions”. It beggars belief that in a home tournament, it is the host team that has been talking of being at the wrong end of referring decisions, and Stimac has been leading that call leaving his assistant Mahesh Gawli to not just stand in but also defend his boss’s actions.
“His tweet later may have been to corner attention after his action, the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ thing but it is simply not justified especially after the top-ranked AIFF administrator had spoken to him,” the official. That Stimac went and did just that in his return to the India bench, has not just rankled the Indian football administration, but more, alarmed at the coach’s behaviour with the Asian Cup looming.
Still, AIFF feels that there is a silver lining emerging out of all this. “It’s only good for us that this happened at this stage and not later,” said the official. “Had this happened at a later stage, say at the Asian Cup, it would have been disastrous. Now, we know what to look out for and what to check,” he added.