Igor Stimac, head coach of the Indian men’s football team headed for the Hangzhou Asian Games, shot back smiling with a question of his own to a question during his pre-departure press conference regarding the morale in the camp.
“Which morale and in which camp?” Stimac asked.
The Croatian coach was speaking on Sunday afternoon, hours before he was to meet his players assembling at the Delhi airport for a 10pm flight to Hong Kong. After a “5-6 hour” transit, the squad will touch down in Hangzhou “around 5pm” on Monday. They play China on Tuesday, without a single training session together.
“From requesting more time for preparation, we came to a point where we need to be happy where we get the players just before kickoff,” Stimac said.
And they are not even players the Croatian wanted in the first place. From the “first list of 50 players provided more than four months ago” and after changing it multiple times, the coach has at his disposal Sunil Chhetri and Sandesh Jhingan among his prominent first-choice picks for the squad but most others whom “I’ll meet for the first time”.
Jhingan — along with Chinglensana Singh and Lalchungnunga — were late additions on Friday to the squad that was changed several times over the last few days amid last-minute negotiations between the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Indian Super League (ISL) clubs unwilling to release players with the league starting on Thursday.
And thus taking on China, Bangladesh and Myanmar with “what we have”, Stimac hopes to open their Group A campaign with a good fight, primarily, “because I cannot expect more in such situation”.
“I am not thinking about results, to be honest. I have no reason whatsoever to request results from the players,” he said. “The reasons are well known. All I’m going to ask the players to do is the best of their abilities. I’ll try to help them in achieving that.”
His priority isn’t winning matches or advancing to the next stage from the group, but to “save my players’ legs” and “not let anyone down with injuries” with an eye on the World Cup qualifiers. Therefore, he said, he could leave out Chhetri and Jhingan against China going straight from travel — which will also double up for tactical preparation — to competition.
“I’m not thinking about China. I’m thinking about Bangladesh and Myanmar. So, do not be surprised if I leave Sandesh and Sunil out for the first game. I will not put us or the country in danger of losing Sunil ahead of the World Cup qualifiers,” he said.
“Having two days’ preparation prior to big games will never serve us well. That’s why I was always against such short camps and trying to escape from such challenges. They’re bringing nothing good to India.”
Part of Croatia’s 1998 World Cup squad that finished third, Stimac said if he had known that “certain elements will stop us from going there with the best possible team”, he would have probably done things differently.
“I would rather pick all I-League players and request to train with them for two months to prepare for the Asian Games. And you wouldn’t notice much of a difference there. We don’t have a huge difference in the quality of players playing in ISL and the good youngsters in the I-League.”
The tussle for releasing players outside the FIFA window and the subsequent lack of preparation time — Stimac has repeatedly stressed about having longer national camps ahead of major tournaments — is continuing to do “injustice to the national team”.
“These things are following us continuously,” he said. “Whatever I request, I’m not requesting for myself. It’s for India. Today we have what we have. Most of them aren’t with us, and I feel sorry for them because it’s one great opportunity lost for one great generation to maybe get one medal there.”
For those who are there in the largely depleted squad, the importance of this Asian Games though shouldn’t be lost, he added. “This tournament should serve mostly to those players who are not primarily on the list as a great opportunity and challenge to prove themselves — that they deserve better opportunities in ISL, their clubs and to turn highlights to themselves,” Stimac said.
While stating that no tournament is a mere formality for him, Stimac, however, reckoned that with the players he has, India will need plenty of fight and some luck to advance from the group in Hangzhou. “How much can we do?” he said.