Impressed with Prabir, a warrior who can play: Igor Stimac
Wouldn’t have conceded against Bangladesh and Afghanistan if Sandesh was in the team, says India coach.Updated: Mar 30, 2020 21:39 IST
Igor Stimac was at home in the coastal city of Split, some 400km from Zagreb when the earthquake hit Croatia’s capital on March 22. “We didn’t feel anything here,” says the India football coach. “But we were very sad watching our people living in fear and disbelief on the streets of Zagreb. Need to thank God that all in my family is safe.”
The 5.3-magnitude earthquake was the most severe to hit Zagreb since 1880, according to Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic. It disrupted social distancing plans to contain coronavirus and damaged over 26,000 buildings including the Zagreb Cathedral and the Croatian Parliament.
Like India, Croatia is combating the virus with a nationwide lockdown for the past two weeks. “We are at home, not going anywhere. Everything is closed,” says Stimac, 52, in an interview to Hindustan Times. “The only way of winning the war against Covid-19 is to be patient and disciplined.”
Derby missed, plans shelved
Stimac flew home before the weekend of the Indian Super League (ISL) final and the I-League’s Kolkata derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal which he was supposed to attend.
“I was so excited about that game. I was supposed to watch the Hero ISL final game in Goa, and fly the following morning to Kolkata for the derby…. I have heard stories about the enormous passion, supporters coming from all over, (sometimes) the day before. Like most big games, it brings together everything that football is about,” says the former defender who played all matches when Croatia finished third in the 1998 World Cup.
The game in Kolkata didn’t happen because the I-League had been suspended a day prior, on March 14 hours before the ISL final was held in Goa behind closed doors. By then India’s home match against Qatar, scheduled on March 26, had been deferred. Stimac’s plans between March and June --- when this round of qualifiers were scheduled to end --- that included an away friendly to Tajikistan and a match between the national team and the best Indians in the I-League had to be put on hold as football stopped.
“I was so sad once it became clear that all our plans from March to June were destroyed. But life goes on and hopefully everything will resume soon. I am very sad that many people lost their loved ones.”
Life without football is difficult, says Stimac. “But it’s God’s will and we can’t do anything. I try to use as much time possible reading and watching some old games. (I am) Keeping in touch with my (support) staff and making sure my family is safe.”
If there is a silver lining to the interruption for Stimac it is that the break will give Sandesh Jhingan, Amarjit Singh and Jeje Lalpekhlua more time to recover from injuries. Stimac had wanted to see the trio at a preparatory camp ahead of the game against Qatar. “It’s good for them as that allows them more time for full recovery. We need them back in the team in good form,” he says.
The importance of Sandesh
A knee injury in a practice game last October against NorthEast United ruled out central defender Jhingan from ISL and three of India’s qualifiers. “Football is all about team effort. When someone important is missing, then each one of the players on the pitch needs to give an extra 10 % to replace lack of quality. But there are certain things you can’t replace and experience is certainly most important one.
“I am quite sure that with Sandesh in the team against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, we wouldn’t have conceded any goals. Four points (from those two games) more would keep us in a much more comfortable position. It’s much easier to replace players in front than those who are in command at the back like Sandesh and Adil (Khan),” he says.
After holding Asian champions Qatar 0-0 in Doha, India’s campaign in the 2022 World Cup and the 2023 Asian Cup slid south with 1-1 draws against Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Then, central defender Adil Khan, Jhingan’s regular partner, got injured in the away tie to Oman which India lost 0-1. Still searching for their first win, India have three points from five games in Group E.
Stimac’s search for central defenders continues and he had called ISL champions ATK’s Sumit Rathi to the camp that didn’t happen owing to the tie against Qatar being postponed. “He is young and that’s what we looking for. Good height and physical presence and a feeling the game. His positioning sense is solid. I will tell you more once I find out how much he can advance his game, how good and quick is his learning ability,” says Stimac about the 18-year-old adjudged Emerging Player of the Year award in ISL6.
Another player who caught the Croat’s eye was Rathi’s teammate Prabir Das. Used as a right wingback, Das made a remarkable return to football after being injured all of last season.
“From the players I didn’t have a chance to work with, he and (FC Goa right-back) Seriton (Fernandes) impressed me most. He is brave, determined, adept in providing good crosses and we can use him in different positions. I am certainly looking forward to meet him and give him a chance to prove himself at the international level. We need more warriors in our team with abilities to play,” says Stimac.
Samad must play more
Sahal Abdul Samad’s lack of game time at Kerala Blasters though was a worry, he said. “He played exactly 791 minutes out of 18 games -- nearly 50 %. It’s not enough, and he needs to do more and better. He is brilliant young man, very intelligent and committed to his football. I am quite sure that he will find a way during this break to work more on his individual strength.
“He is one of the most important players in our future plans and we are going to do all it takes with his respective club manager in helping him get back to his best,” says Stimac about the creative midfielder who made his India debut in the 2019 King’s Cup. That was also Stimac’s first tournament in charge as India coach.
Living on a jet plane
Between October and December, Stimac took 40 flights to catch the domestic season. “There were situations when I didn’t know in the morning where I was. It was hectic but I did my best to see live as many games as possible,” he says.
He was up in the air again in February and March. “Once again it was couple of flights every day -- from airport to stadiums and short sleep after the game. But I felt happy. It was a great experience visiting cities and stadia, meeting club owners and discussing football issues with them. I have seen most of the action in the leagues (ISL and I-League), and what they offer at the moment.”
Helping Stimac was Shanmugham Venkatesh, his assistant in the national team who was put in charge of the federation’s development squad Indian Arrows. “Venky (Shanmugam Venkatesh) was in charge of Indian Arrows with two clear missions. He knew he had to implement the same work which is done in the senior team, and also had to scout from the Hero I-League,” says Stimac.
Longer ISL soon
In a season without a cup competition, the ISL had 18 games for teams that didn’t make the play-offs. The 2019-20 I-League assures each team of 20 games. Bangladesh, who are ranked 79 slots below India at 187 in the latest Fifa list, has a longer season and a bigger league.
Stimac says that will change. “It’s going to happen soon. We worked together with FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited who run ISL) officials on a new long term calendar, discussing many important issues which could bring to our teams more competitive games. We will sit down very soon again once we get over the Corona scare,” he says.