- Igor Stimac was appointed India coach six months ago
- The Croatian was a bronze medal winner at France 1998
- Stimac speaks about India’s potential, World Cup qualifying and hosting U-17 finals
Igor Stimac hails from a nation of just over four million people. But what Croatia lacks in numbers, it makes up for – in football at least – with sheer passion. The result of their national obsession is a team that punches significantly and consistently above its weight, from the beloved bronze medallists of the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ to the team that reached the Final just last year.
India, therefore, might be expected to represent the ultimate culture shock for Stimac. After all, his adopted home has a population edging towards 1.4 billion, but a reputation for being lukewarm towards the world’s most popular sport. Yet although its national team, a “sleeping giant” in seemingly perpetual slumber, is seen as reflecting that perceived lack of passion, Stimac insists otherwise.
The former Croatia stalwart is now over six months into the job of India’s national coach and, while results remain mixed, he has no regrets about embracing this monumental challenge.
“I’ve loved every second so far,” he told FIFA.com. “It is such a responsibility, and a privilege, to lead the national team of such a vast and great country. And the passion is there. People might not think of India as a football country but it really depends where you go. In some regions cricket is still pretty dominant but in other parts football is as important for the people as it was for me growing up in Croatia.
“It’s always been said that India is a sleeping giant when it comes to football, and that’s true – because the potential is there. Together, we have to start waking that giant and make sure that we’re competitive at the next Asian Cup and going on to the World Cup qualifiers in 2026.”
Qatari dreams dashed
That India’s focus has already drifted beyond 2022 reflects their standing in the ongoing Asian preliminaries. Though they have been competitive in all five games thus far, and picked up an unlikely draw away to Asian champions Qatar, a lack of cutting edge has proved costly.
“Scoring goals is our big problem right now,” Stimac conceded. “We are playing some good football, and the effort is there, but we don’t have that final touch in and around the box. We need to find solutions to that and we’re working on it, through set-pieces and other methods. We have also been changing the team’s style of play, with fewer long balls, and I’m seeing real progress there – the stats show our ball retention is already much better.
“I only wish we’d had better results so far. We were always big underdogs in this group but it will be a pity to miss out on Qatar in 2022 because I think it will be the most fascinating World Cup ever. I coached in Qatar for a while and I’ve been back to visit since stopping work there. It’s an incredible country and the people there will make the World Cup a huge success. I know there have been doubts but, honestly, it’s going to be amazing.”
World Cup memories
Stimac, of course, knows better than most just how amazing World Cups can be. In 1998, he was a key member of the Croatia side that, in its first global finals as an independent nation, dazzled everyone en route to finishing third. The former Derby County and West Ham United defender went on to coach the national team, too, working with several of the players who would reach the 2018 Final.
“That World Cup in France is one of the most fantastic memories in my life,” he enthused. “It was a very important tournament for our entire nation and I'll always be proud to have been part of that team.
"But I was so happy that the team last year surpassed what we achieved. When I coached them, I said to those players, ‘The first goal is to qualify for a World Cup – the second is to win it’. They went out in Russia with that attitude and, with a bit more luck, I really feel that they could have brought home the trophy.”
Stimac forms part of a celebrated generation who did conquer the world, as one of the FIFA World Youth Championship-winning Yugoslavia side of 1987. He speaks with authority, therefore, on the significance of India hosting two such youth tournaments in quick succession, with the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup India 2021™ following hot on the heels of 2017’s hugely successful men’s U-17 showpiece.
“These tournaments are fantastic. I still think about 1987, use it in my work and speak about that experience to my players. It left me with lessons and memories for life. It’s a big step for India to host tournaments like this and a positive move for the country in so many ways.
“I know there were some doubts about India hosting the U-17 World Cup a couple of years ago and that, in the end, they received so much praise for the fantastic job they did. It will be the same for the women’s event next year. India will be a fantastic host, and it will help a lot in the development of young female players here. We have quite a few from that U-17 men’s team making an impact in our senior side already.
“It’s all part of the journey India is on as a football nation, and it’s another positive step forward. We just have to keep everything moving in the right direction and, if we do that, the future here will be very exciting.”