A 38-game season, more matches for players, and a much shorter off-season, as well as an extended ISL and an I-League solely for Indians. That is roughly what Igor Stimac wants to do for Indian football.
It’s a big set of concepts, and Stimac, the head coach of India’s male football team, knows it may be ambitious.
The fixture list for India’s domestic football calendar, which usually lasts from mid-late November to mid-early March and features the Indian Super League and I-League running simultaneously, was the focus of a wide-ranging – and refreshingly honest – interview Stimac had with journalists on Saturday.
He addressed the current structure of Indian football, as well as how it has (or has not) evolved during his tenure with the national team.
The changes Stimac is proposing would have a few different benefits.
For one, it would reduce the number of players who are out of action for long periods of time due to the current structure, in which the ISL and I-League run at the same time.
It would also allow for a longer season, which would give players more matches and opportunities to develop. Finally, it would create a clearer path for young Indian players to progress from the youth leagues to the senior teams.
How big is the ISL for India?
The Indian Super League (ISL) is a professional football league in India. It was founded on 21 October 2013 with the support of the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The league currently features 10 teams and is considered the top division of Indian football.
Since its inception, the ISL has seen steady growth in terms of popularity and quality of play. In its first season, the league attracted an average attendance of 27,000 fans per match. This number increased to 37,000 in the second season and 46,000 in the third season.
The ISL is the country’s premier football tournament, and it is certainly not small! It features some of the best teams in India, as well as some of the best players from around the world. The ISL is a great platform for young Indian footballers to showcase their talent, and it is also a great way for fans to catch up on all the latest action.
The ISL is also gaining popularity abroad. In 2019, the league signed a deal with Facebook to broadcast its matches in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. This deal helped the ISL reach a potential global audience of 1.6 billion people.
The ISL is still relatively unknown compared to other football leagues around the world. However, it has shown steady growth in popularity and quality of play. With continued support from the AIFF and exposure to a global audience, the ISL has the potential to become one of the top football leagues in the world.
The disconnect between football leagues in India
At the moment, there is a disconnect between the various levels of football in India. The I-League is the top division, but it is not seen as the best platform for young Indian players to develop, as most of the teams in the league field foreign players. The ISL, on the other hand, is seen as a better platform for development, but it is not considered to be as competitive as the I-League.
This disconnect between the two leagues is not good for the development of football in India.
One of the main reasons for this disconnect is that the I-League does not have a proper promotion and relegation system in place. This means that the top teams in the league are almost always the same, as they are not relegated to a lower division
Stimac’s proposed changes would address these issues by creating a clear path for young players to progress through the ranks, as well as increasing the number of competitive matches throughout the season.
It remains to be seen whether these changes will be implemented, but it is refreshing to see a coach who is willing to speak honestly about the state of the game in India and offer concrete solutions to improve it.
“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 is aware that the epidemic necessitated certain planned adjustments being put on hold, but he regrets that several others, such as the implementation of a four-foreigners-only rule, took so long to materialise.
“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 a contract with AIFF differently.”
One can understand his frustration. After all, it was while he was incharge that India won the U-17 World Cup, reached the Asian Cup final and also registered some famous wins on foreign soil – including a 4-1 victory over Thailand which helped send the team to the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in 27 years.
But the project he took on was far from complete. The national team had just begun to scratch the surface of its potential and there was still so much more work to be done.
And that’s why, despite all the frustration, Stimac is not ready to give up on Indian football just yet.
“I see potential in Indian football,” he says. “There is quality, there are good players. The infrastructure is getting better, the number of clubs and academies are increasing. But it needs time – five to 10 years – to get where we want to be.”
What Stimac expects from those following him
In the meantime, he has some advice for those who will take over from him.
“What I would like to see is a longer season, more clubs in the ISL and an I-League which is for Indian players only,” he says.
“If we can have those three things, I think Indian football will be in a much better place.”
Stimac’s fix for Indian football: Longer season, more ISL clubs, Indians-only I-League
When Igor Stimac took over as head coach of the Indian national team in 2019, he had high hopes for the future of the sport in the country.
Unfortunately, things have not gone according to plan.
Stimac was appointed with the task of taking India to the 2022 World Cup, but the team has struggled during his tenure and currently sits at a lowly 105th in the FIFA rankings.
The Croatian was also tasked with developing Indian football from the grassroots up, but he has been critical of the progress made by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in this regard.
Now, with his contract set to expire in April, Stimac looks back on his time in India with frustration and regret.
“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.” He is still under contract with the team until September, and there have been no discussions on a new deal. He just hopes it happens as soon as possible.
“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.”
As the All India Football Federation (AIFF) gears up for its crucial elections, Stimac believes that it is high time they start working towards the future of Indian football. He also said that if the AIFF doesn’t start taking steps soon, they might face problems in the near future. He added that time is passing by and they need to start working yesterday.