‘You can tell me we’re not going to change anything, please coach go home, and I will go home happily’: India football coach Igor Stimac on club vs country debate

Warning that the ‘most difficult period is in front of us’, India coach Igor Stimac has once again appealed to the Indian Super League (ISL) clubs to release the players in time to prepare for the Asian Games, the World Cup qualifiers and the Asian Cup.

“I didn’t, pardon my language now, come to India to lick a**es. I came to India to help. If you want my help, I need to tell you the truth. You can face it, you can help me to overcome the problems or you can tell me we’re not going to change anything, please coach go home, and I will go home happily and we’re going to stay friends.”

“We have the best brains in the world in India, you’re telling me we cannot manage to adjust the calendar to make sure that the national team has enough time to work? Or are there some other interests? I don’t have a problem with saying that because that’s the truth. Whoever wants to prove me wrong, he can come out publicly with me, debate and tell me what is the main problem?”

Stimac’s comments come amidst a widening rift between the top-tier clubs and the national team management over releasing players for India duties.

Freedom Sale

Starting next week, India will be in action frequently starting with the King’s Cup tournament in Thailand, followed by the Asian U-23 qualifiers in China, where the team will also compete in the Asian Games starting September 19. In October, India will compete in the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia; the 2026 World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualifiers are scheduled to begin in November and the Asian Cup in January.

But there are roadblocks aplenty. Over the weekend, India’s under-23 team began its preparation for the qualifiers with more than half of the players not reporting for the camp, which was already postponed once as the clubs refused to release players.

Igor Stimac Stimac’s comments come amidst a widening rift between the top-tier clubs and the national team management over releasing players for India duties.

U-23 India coach Clifford Miranda told PTI on Sunday that only 12 out of the 25 players reported for training, with top teams like East Bengal, Kerala Blasters, Mumbai City, Jamshedpur FC, Odisha FC and Punjab FC not sending their players.

The clubs, meanwhile, have argued that since the training camp falls outside the dates earmarked by FIFA for the national teams, they are not obligated to let the players go.

Stimac, who is in Croatia at the moment and will join the team in Thailand for the King’s Cup on September 2, fears a similar scenario will arise for the Asian Games and later the Asian Cup.

India have named talisman Sunil Chhetri, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and defender Sandesh Jhingan as the three over-23 players for the Asian Games squad. However, questions remain over whether they – and others in the squad – will eventually play in the competition. India have been drawn in Group D along side hosts China, neighbours Bangladesh and Myanmar.

“The most difficult period is in front of us. And without blaming anyone, it’s not our fault in AIFF (All India Football Federation) or not in people from FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited, the body that runs the ISL)) that we had the pandemic, that Asian Games and Asian Cup got postponed and that without deeper communication and discussion, those tournaments were brought in the middle of the calendar. So, most of the countries and all the coaches are facing the problems together with the clubs,” Stimac said.

Stimac further added: “But I’m worried because most of these countries found a way to provide the national team the time to work and prepare well. And we are still saying we cannot do it …”

Sources in the ISL have countered that at the start of the year, when India’s international commitments were being finalised, the team management, including Stimac, said the Asian Games did not rank high in their priorities.

Stimac said ‘it is not the truth’. “How can one coach say that’s not important? That would be silly. What I said precisely was that I’m ready to sacrifice the FIFA window in September and October to get four weeks camp prior to the Asian Cup, and two weeks prior to the World Cup qualifiers in November. That’s what I said… At that time, we didn’t know that the Asian Games are coming in September. So that’s a lie.”

The club vs country debate is not a new one and neither is the idea of India skipping the September and October FIFA windows for the sake of ISL. However, India’s recent run – the team is undefeated this year – has underlined the importance of having long duration preparatory camps before a tournament, as was the case before the Intercontinental Cup and the South Asian Football Championship.

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Given that the level of competition will be several notches higher at the Asian Games, World Cup qualifiers and the Asian Cup, the coaching staff and the players have repeatedly requested to have extended camps.

Stimac said the clubs need to see the bigger picture. “(I know) players need to be in the clubs, they need to be involved in the club competitions. But when it comes to our primary goals, you see, we want to go top-eight, top-10 in Asia in the next four years. How are we going to get there? If we are now two levels below the countries in the top-8, how are we going to get there without spending time together and working together?

“Keeping in mind that these countries are investing a hundred times more in football than us, how are we gonna get there? By the magic sword? We don’t have it. We can’t have it by the shortest league in Asia.”

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