EXCLUSIVE | 'Like Ronaldo in the world, that's what Chhangte is becoming in India': Igor Stimac
In an exclusive chat, Igor Stimac spoke on various aspects behind the development of Indian football, the road ahead and his future with the national team.
"I took this chance because I see India as a sleeping giant in football," were Igor Stimac's first remark back in 2019 when he took over as head coach of the Indian men's national team. Four years later after a lot of work behind the scenes, handing many new talents their debut, India find themselves a confident unit irrespective of their opponents. The route-one approach of sending long balls from one half to the other is rare and it has been refurbished into a different style, featuring good build-ups through short passes, impressive sprint and link-ups on the flanks and smart switches from one side to another.
The national team is currently occupied at the SAFF Championship 2023, where they have expressed themselves in a similar fashion, thrashing Pakistan 4-0 and then securing a 2-0 victory over Nepal. In addition, the defence too has been impenetrable with India's No. 1 keeping cleansheets in the last eight matches.
In an exclusive chat with Hindustan Times, the head coach spoke on various aspects behind the development and the road ahead. He also spoke on his future with the national team, stating the "door is not closed yet" and THAT moment in the technical area during the match against Pakistan.
I remember your first press conference back in 2019 when you said “India were the sleeping giants in football”, so it's been like four years now and the team has achieved immense success under your reign. Can you tell us about your observation on the progress the team has achieved since then?
The team has grown in regards to the plan and program we prepared. Through selection process, which was executed based on science, experience and knowledge overall, something which nobody trusted in this country.
In the recent performances of the Indian team, the link ups in the flanks, the ball possession has been good, we witness good switches in play from one side to the other and the results are visible. Can you talk us through the work behind the scene?
It's about drills and enough time given to us to work together. No more than that.
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Your thoughts on Lallianzuala Chhangte and the energy he brings be it the runs, dribble or the pass?
I would say Chhangte and also (Naorem Singh) Mahesh. The two of them are giving us now amazing options in the final third because they are very special players. Obviously, the season they had behind them helped and the faith they club coaches have in them went a lot way in them become more relaxed and creative on the pitch. To express themselves and just having them with the national team is great thing for us. And I praise everyone who was working with them, their talent, and mostly commitment.
Chhangte is very, very important, if not the most important player for the future of Indian football because he's a proper role model of professional football. Like Ronaldo in the world. That's what Chhangte is becoming in India.
The next assignment is against Kuwait, who have been a dominant side in the SAFF Championship 2023. India too have shown similar flair but given their (Kuwait) performance will India switch back to the XI that started against Pakistan?
Whoever starts in the starting XI doesn't change, because we are all Indians here. So the names are not important. It's quite obvious now that we have a very solid first option of central backs. We have three great midfielders, all of whom can be the first option. We have a center forward, who once again is the first option, right-winger who is the first option. And we are combining on the fullback and left winger positions depending on the opponent, depending on the needs for the national team and success.
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You mentioned three great center backs, and India have maintained eight clean sheets in a row so can you tell us about it?
I mean it's connected to the philosophy that is being implemented in international team. It's connected to what you mentioned earlier, the first press conference, where I clearly pointed out that the first goal was to change the mindset of the players and it's been changed to playing fearless football. Showing respect to everyone but not having fear from anyone. And that will not change, never mind who we play.
So in the future, I'm telling you… India will not change its philosophy of football despite the difference in quality of opponents we're going to face. Whoever is there, we're going to go high up and attack. Win or lose, we won't change. That's the only way of going forward.
In the previous match which was against Nepal the team had made eight changes in the lineup, and please correct me if I'm wrong but I felt that we were a bit troubled. So what is your honest review on it?
At certain points of the game we didn't fulfill the instructions given prior to the game. We were not marking tight. We were allowing their front players to pick up the rebounds and make some good crosses into the box, which are dangerous. There were two dangerous situations: one came out of Mehtab's bad header, which came from the corner line back to the central position of the edge of the box. And then, Gurpreet saved that shot. That was the only dangerous shot and they had one cross from the right, which was not good enough for the striker entering behind our center backs.
So considering we change eight players, four have never played together and the boys needed time to gear up into the game. Having in mind that the referee was favouring Nepal, letting some bad tackles flying around and not sanctioning them. Three or four times really hard on (Anirudh) Thapa from behind, not getting booked. We could talk about these 45 minutes but the thing is we were not good enough. We were not following precise instruction, the passing was not quick enough, switching of sides was missing. We were pushing first 15 minutes only through the right side, killing Udatanta (Singh) with bad passes, not giving him opportunity to position himself better.
So tactically nothing, I would say 90 percent of the things and instructions were not fulfilled, and that's why we suffered. And then you have the obvious change in the second half. The change of approach. Strict instruction followed and everything perfect.
As you mentioned about Udanta, he was introduced as a substitute in place of Ashique (Kuruniyan) in the match against Pakistan, which was not his natural position yet he scored. But against Nepal despite playing in his natural position he was unable to click with Nikhil (Poojary). What do you make of it?
Only time will tell how these two work in tandem on the right side and we need to be patient as I always say. For these boys to make a proper and effective tandems, they need time. We can clearly see Chhangte and Nikhil click already. Udanta meanwhile is a different kind of player from Chhangte. Chhangte is someone who likes to receive the ball in the legs and then make a difference and advantage for the team. Either going inside with the ball or dribbling the player and coming on his right foot and crossing for Sunil (Chhetri) to score.
On the other hand, we've seen Udanta use his extreme speed and getting behind the back four to receive the ball instead of receiving in his legs. But it's good to have both options.
In the match against Pakistan, we saw Anwar (Ali) send a perfect lofted delivery from close to India's D to the opposition, which resulted in a goal. The long balls he plays and amazing interceptions, so what are your thoughts on him?
That's another good point about the quality we have now in the team. Because when someone tries to press us very high, it's like giving us the opportunity as we have enough speed in our front players. We now have boys from the back, who can create such long passes with so much accuracy that it can kill the opposition.
I wanted to ask you about the incident that happened during the match against Pakistan. A player when he was about to take a throw-in and you tapped the ball from his hand. Following which you tweeted that you were protecting the players against “unjustified decision”. Can you shed more light into it?
It's simple. It was a clear foul on (Pritam) Kotal near the line. Just one meter far from me and the referee was just two meter behind the scene. He could clearly see but he didn't give. And that was during the extra time in the first-half. People are saying why is the coach doing this? 2-0 is a comfortable result and this and that. 2-0 is not a comfortable result as we are in extra time of the first half and Pakistan is taking the ball very quick and going to counter attack.
It was a tactical decision. Nothing like incident, I wouldn't say that. I was well aware about the sanction I'm gonna get but I was not ready to allow Pakistan team to use the opportunity of referee's mistake in their favor.
If we look at team's recent outings, they have been impressive in both fronts – attack and defence. However things will be slightly different difficult in the Asian Cup considering the opponents. So do you have any specific plans for opponents like Australia, who are a regular in the FIFA World Cup.
It's still far to think about it. First, we need to concentrate on September, then October, then November and then we're going to start thinking about Australia, Syria, and Uzbekistan, and prepare the analysis on our opponents. Analyse all their games from September, October, November and only they we'll plan.
As you had stated earlier that Asian Cup would be your final assignment with the Indian team. So if the team performs exceedingly well, will you reconsider the decision?
I said something else, the media is repeating only that. For me to stay here, things need to change. So I didn't close the door yet. National team needs to be priority of Indian football, everything else comes after that.
You have me fully committed here, you have my heart, you have my passion, you have my knowledge, even you didn't trust me for four years. No one here. Only the closest people who were well aware about the process, which was not even recognised. Because most of you who were following couldn't recognise. You were ready to rubbish everything. You were ready to criticize everything. Not to think deeper. Not to come to ask. Not to ask explanations. And now everybody is surprised. Well, I'm not. Because I knew which path we are taking, what's the suffering, which I was talking about duiring my first press conference. You remember, didn't I say there will be lots of suffering on the road? It's a process. I told you everything. But you didn't trust. So let's see what happens.
Since you mentioned that you "haven't closed the door yet” and you want the national team to be the priority, so anything specific that you have planned, what are your expectations?
You will see everything pretty soon. I will post publicly, my presentations about Indian football future. Manifesto about Indian national team. Everything will be posted on my social media and then you will find out what was the process and how it was executed? How much work and effort was put in, which went unnoticed. It's been done by the plan. It's been done by the knowledge, by the science and everything. What is needed in football to succeed. That's why I'm telling you, we are not surprised. We were working really hard throughout all the suffering, which was going on for the past four years. And now we expect everyone to give opportunity to this national team. At least to have minimum needed push for success and that minimum is a four-week long preparation camp.