Indian Football: New Coach Igor Stimac needs to be given time - he's not a miracle-worker
On that dreaded January night in Sharjah, Stephen Constantine decided to ditch what had served India well in the first two games of the tournament. Constantine decided that India would hold on to what they had against Bahrain, ditching the quick counter-attacking play that helped India beat Thailand 4-1, and put up a spirited show against hosts UAE in a 2-0 loss.
Constantine stepped down from his post after that game against Bahrain, and four months later, the Indian team officially has a new head coach, in Croatian Igor Stimac.
When Constantine stepped down, the Indian fans asked for something simple - they had only two real demands - a better style of football, and for deserving players to be picked in the squad.
By the end of Constantine's reign as India's coach, the latter had become a pet peeve for the fans. Even though there were 49 players who were given their National team debuts by the Englishman, the fans argued that there were a scarce few in that list who actually deserved to be wearing the India shirt.
Players such as Bengaluru FC's Rahul Bheke and FC Goa's Brandon Fernandes featured prominently as those that deserved to be wearing the India blue - even though the fans had realised that Fernandes had a run-in with the AIFF, after he was called up for the camp during the 2015 SAFF Cup, where he reportedly refused to abide by team instructions.
Stimac can already put himself on the fans' good books by picking the right players. For example, the likes of Sarthak Golui and Germanpreet Singh didn't really cover themselves in glory in the ISL, and yet were a part of Constantine's squad that went to the Asian Cup.
Bheke, on the other hand, has been the country's most consistent defender for two seasons and capped it off by winning Bengaluru FC the 2018-19 ISL with a header late in extra-time.
Lallianzuala Chhangte, who has been Delhi Dynamos' best Indian player in the ISL for two seasons now, somehow found himself outside national reckoning after that 2015 SAFF Cup, where he burst in to the limelight.
For Stimac, the wish from the fans is simple - pick the players who have obviously shown in the last couple of years that they are ready for the National team.
Of course, picking a team based on just the fans' wishes is harmful and never the right thing to do, but in this case, it isn't about tearing up the current squad and replacing it with an all-new one. It's about the betterment of the squad, and there are players who Constantine had outside his reckoning, who have definitely shown they will improve this Indian side.
The style of play need not be drastically different
"Why do India play long balls?"
"We want attractive, passing football."
Well, the fans had their say throughout Constantine's tenure, but the fact of the matter is, any coach has to find the balance between style and efficiency. Constantine chose the latter, and in truth, it's hard to question him based on the results that he brought the national team - he did take India from 173 to the top 100 in the FIFA Rankings. How he did that, there may be question marks, but these are hard facts.
Stimac's Croatia were not entirely different in style to Constantine's India. The manager insisted on solid defensive discipline, and chose to attack through counters and set-pieces. It is a style of play that could work with India.
With India's attacking players and their profile, it is not hard to see that a counter-attacking style would fit the bill perfectly. Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan and skipper Sunil Chhetri are all perfectly built to play that way.
In Anirudh Thapa and maybe, Brandon, too, India have some superb exponents of the dead-ball as well, with the likes of Sandesh Jhingan, Bheke and Subhasish Bose all being very credible threats to pose the opposition a threat from set-pieces.
Stimac is not a genie with a magic lamp
Perhaps, the most important aspect to Stimac's initiation into Indian Football will be his ability to contain expectations. Yes, every fan wants the best for Indian Football, but this team is not going to move straight from where it is right now, to being regular contenders even on the continental stage.
India are ranked 18th in Asia, in the current FIFA World Rankings. That means they won't even be in Pot 2, if the draw for the AFC's FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers was to be held today. From there to qualifying for the World Cup is not something that is a realistic expectation.
Stimac's role has to be as someone who sets the foundation, so that it can be built on by whoever takes over from him, when his tenure is finished. In this nation's most-watched sport, the people's favourite, the son of the soil, repeatedly talks about "the process."
Right now, Indian Football needs that. Processes. Standards. Once those are put in place and adhered to, the results will take care of themselves in due course of time.
There might be debate over whether Stimac was indeed the right man for the job, and that's justified. Well, every decision that any sporting entity has two sides to the coin. But now that the AIFF has chosen Stimac, it is important he's given the time and space to work in his way and impose his way on Indian Football. He must be allowed to put his stamp on this country's football.
And yes, he's probably not taking India to a World Cup qualification because of the size of the gap that needs to be bridged. He's a football coach, not a genie with a magic lamp.
As he sets about putting his stamp on Indian Football, the fans have a duty - to unequivocally back Igor Stimac's Blue Tigers, but without having undue, unrealistic expectations out of him.