"A humble appeal and sincere request to Honourable Prime Minister Sri Narendra Modi ji and Hon. Sports Minister Anurag Thakur, to kindly allow our football team to participate in the Asian games. We will fight for our nation’s pride and the flag! Jai Hind!"
It was not the most ceremonial of things for the head coach of a national football team to say on a social media platform. Yet, the gaffer of the Indian men's team was forced to make a public appeal to the country's administrators on July 17 to ensure his boys didn't miss out on the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. It was equated to captain Sunil Chhetri's plea asking fans to fill the stadiums during the Intercontinental Cup 2018.
The Croatian's appeal resonated with the feelings of football fans across the country, who were happy with the recent progress of the Blue Tigers under the coach. Soon, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) rolled back an earlier decision banning the Indian football teams from going to the Asian Games since they were not among the top 8 in the continent.
"Keeping in mind their latest performances in recent times, the Ministry decided to grant the relaxation," Sports Minister Anurag Thakur confirmed nine days after Stimac's plea.
Good news for Indian football lovers!— Anurag Thakur (@ianuragthakur) July 26, 2023
Our national football teams, both Men’s and Women’s, are set to participate in the upcoming Asian Games.
The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India, has decided to relax the rules to facilitate participation of both the…
However, things didn't turn out as expected as veteran Chhetri was the only notable face in the 18-member Indian squad announced for the Hangzhou Games. Most clubs decided against releasing their men for the quadrennial event that clashes with the upcoming Indian Super League (ISL). While the Games are scheduled from September 23 to October 8, the league will kick off on September 19. This effectively weakened the victory of Stimac's public plea -- what's the point in sending a namesake team if the top names are denied the exposure of taking on the continent's finest?
The under-strength team has just two goalkeepers, instead of three in a normal 22-member squad, and it could be problematic if there are injuries during the tournament. According to the latest reports, the national head coach, who had earlier said that the Asian Games was a priority, is not eager to accompany a second-tier team to Hangzhou.
And then again, Igor Stimac finds himself in a spot following the "astrology row"—a media report claiming that the head coach chose his lineups for international matches based on predictions of an NCR-based astrologer.
Stimac's cryptic tweet on Wednesday is believed to be his response to some if not all, questions pertaining around him.
"Target or honest fighter for the betterment of Indian football? The time is coming to put all cards on the table and see how much and who really cares about football in this country," Stimac wrote.
Target or honest fighter for the betterment of Indian football?— Igor Štimac (@stimac_igor) September 12, 2023
The time is coming to put all cards on the table and see how much and who really cares about football in this country.
Give it a thought before making up your judgment and thanks once again for your support. pic.twitter.com/SfCaargLlz
The Asian Games vs ISL conundrum
Most of the 22-member squad originally prepared by the AIFF played in India's top-tier league. But the ISL clubs refused to release their players as it would mean the players missing three to four contests. Since the Asian Games did not fall in the FIFA international match window, the clubs are not obliged to let the players go.
Thus, after prolonged parleys, the AIFF was able to announce an under-strength team made up of nine players from the original 22, including Chhetri.
AIFF and foreign coaches: Not a great love story
Stimac's cryptic tweet has further strengthened speculations and conversations on social media about his future in the backdrop of the astrology row. It was reported that an astrologer received around Rs 16 lakh for his predictions on the Indian football team ahead of games. Players were omitted and selected based on the astrologer's evaluations ahead of match days. Stimac was directly in touch with the astrologer during the Asian Cup Qualifiers, media reports said.
Many people on X (formerly Twitter) said that the AIFF may make Stimac a scapegoat and close the chapter; just like they have dealt with other foreign coaches in the past.
Not long after India missed out narrowly qualifying for the second round of the 2019 Asian Cup, the then-chief coach Stephen Constantine announced that he was stepping down. When the AIFF confirmed that the Brit, India's longest-serving football coach to date, has decided to step down, it was well past midnight! What was the hurry on the AIFF's part to confirm Constantine's departure from office? A closer look will tell tensions between the country's football body and managers were not new.
Bob Houghton, under whom India played 45 games, reportedly had to move legally negotiate his full and final settlement with the AIFF following his resignation, a report said.
The AIFF is even accused of removing foreign gaffers whom its top officials didn't like, despite the team showing progress. A six-month-old incident was "used" to oust Houghton as his on-field performance gave the officials no chance, a report said.
If things go south, it needs to be seen if Stimac will leave his office silently, having proven his oratory skills and mass appeal on several occasions.
The Indian team is scheduled to begin its Asian Games campaign with a match against China on September 19, followed by games against Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24).