Stimac's fix for Indian football: Longer season, more ISL clubs, Indians-only I-League

"A footballer cannot have a break that’s longer than 6-8 weeks." AIFF

A longer season, more matches for players and a much shorter off-season, an expanded ISL and an Indians-only I-League. That, largely, is Igor Stimac's wishlist to improve Indian football. It's an ambitious set of ideas and Stimac, Indian men's football team head coach, himself is aware that it might be a bit unrealistic but he's convinced that the structure needs an overhaul.

India's domestic football calendar, which generally tends to run from mid-late November to mid-March and has the Indian Super League and I-League functioning simultaneously, was the focal point of a wide-ranging - and refreshingly frank - chat Stimac had with journalists on Saturday. He spoke on the current set-up of Indian football, and how it has changed (or not) during his time with the national team.

"When I took the job, I expected a far different situation," he says. "I expected everyone to be committed and ready to help the national team rise up. But some of the parties were concentrating on their own projects which was surprising, some of them didn't understand what that means and how long it takes for the national team to rise up."

Stimac understands that the pandemic meant certain proposed changes had to be kept on hold, but laments the fact that certain others, like the introduction of the four-foreigners-only rule, took so long to come about ("It took us three years, why couldn't it have been done immediately?"). It's telling that when asked what he would have done differently if given a chance to start again, he said he would have "handled discussions prior to signing contract with AIFF differently."

The main issue is of course the ISL season. "After agreeing [with all the stakeholders] that the main problem is a short season and not enough games, we tried to change the structure of competition. We know why that didn't happen."

"The season needs to be longer and players need more matches. A footballer cannot have a break that's longer than 6-8 weeks," Stimac says.

"The football calendar can't depend on, for example, the IPL and broadcast-related issues. India is blessed to have a sport as popular as cricket but shouldn't be afraid to have another sport becoming as popular. Football shouldn't suffer because of cricket. Cricket shouldn't fear football," he says, before adding that everything being done should be done keeping in mind how it benefits the national team. "Only the national team can make people fall in love with football, not ISL."

Stimac, of course, hasn't had the smoothest rides in his time here. His win percentage before the three matches in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers (he won all three) was a mere 24% and his football has oscillated between the decently promising to the very dour. But he accepts the criticism with an understanding shrug, as a natural by-product of greater interest in Indian football. He always knew it was going to be "difficult."

He does, though, ask that critics look at the structure behind him. For example, when asked why there's not been any consistency in his starting XIs, he asks what can be done if the players can't find consistent form: "Where is [Rowllin] Borges? I was relying on him as my central midfielder, and the boy disappeared for more than a year! Amarjit [Singh] was the first from the U17 batch to break through. But he broke his arm and since then he has not been at the level we want to see." It's not excuses, says Stimac, but understanding that the situation is what it is.

His suggestions to improve the structure: the ISL should not have less than 18 teams and should include relegation-promotion. As well as his rather controversial one that I-League teams should not have any foreigners at all. He believes that massive restructuring is necessary to ensure players remain under (the right kind of) pressure throughout the season. "It needs to be much more [of a] challenge for players than [a] comfort," he says. "To go higher as a national team, we need players who will compete every day at their best. We cannot have such a short league without enough clubs to compete. And we need to be quicker [about making these changes]."

Stimac is, though, happy with some of the changes that are happening, slow as it may be. The new calendar with the ISL pre-season kicking off in July, with the Durand Cup before the season starts and the Super Cup (and Santosh Trophy) at the end. "It'll bring players to nearly 40 games a season, plus national team games," he says.

He is also full of praise for ISL managers who trust and employ youngsters in key positions for their clubs. (A tangible result of this could be seen in his lineups in the three qualifiers - with Akash Mishra, Roshan Singh, Jeakson Singh, Suresh Singh and Anwar Ali all playing key roles.)

Another major worry is with what's happening off the field. The government has slashed funding for the All India Football Federation (AIFF) citing poor results while the Supreme Court appointed a Committee of Administrators (CoA) to take over the functioning of the federation. Football's world body FIFA, though, have strict policies regarding government interference in football administration and have previously banned countries for violations. "I was the main guy [when he was vice president of the executive board of Croatian federation], I know all about FIFA regulations. I knew what was going on, and what might happen," but he says he didn't speak up because he didn't want his players distracted nor their preparations disturbed. He also asks why the CoA was put in place so near to such an important series of matches.

"We might have problems very soon if these elections are not held sooner than later, if we don't start organising ourselves which is impossible as I see now," he says. "Time is passing by, and we are not preparing ourselves for the upcoming work. We need(ed) to start working yesterday, not tomorrow." His contract runs out in September, and he says that no talks have been held for any sort of extension. But he hopes it happens soon.

"I am very committed to AIFF. I would love to represent India and take these youngsters and this team that was doing really well in Kolkata last week to Asian Cup and prove that India can do better. I don't want to leave with half-the-job done, actually not even half. If there is a reasonable approach from the other side, I'm very open, but it needs to happen very soon."