Coach Igor Stimac is unlikely to accompany the Indian football team to the Asian Games next week, where India could be forced to field a weakened team owing to a clash with the Indian Super League (ISL), the country’s top division competition, The Indian Express has learnt.
India takes on hosts China at the Hangzhou Games in exactly a week, on September 19. The new season of the ISL kicks off on September 21. As the tussle between the ISL clubs and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) intensifies over the availability of players, uncertainty prevails over the Asiad squad.
Under the rules, each country has to field an under-23 squad along with three senior players. Some of India’s finest national team players fall in that age group and were named in the initial squad along with seniors like the country’s highest goal-scorer Sunil Chhetri, defender Sandesh Jhinghan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. However, none of these players are now likely to travel to Hangzhou.
Stimac, steadfast in his demand of having the best players in the squad, too is unlikely to accompany the Asian Games-bound team.
Incidentally, the development comes on the day The Indian Express reported that Stimac picked the team for the Asian Cup qualifiers last year on the advice of an astrologer. According to Kushal Das, the then secretary-general of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), he introduced Stimac to the astrologer who was paid “around Rs 12-15 lakh” for “professional services”.
On Tuesday, in a post on X, Stimac said: “Target or honest fighter for the betterment of Indian football? The time is coming to put all the 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.” He said “my dream of making India a football nation is still alive”.
The Croat has been at the centre of a dispute with the ISL clubs which have played hardball in releasing players for the national team. He has been issued a show-cause notice recently by the AIFF for his scathing remarks.
Meanwhile, some of India’s top players were caught in a tug-of-war between the clubs and the federation as they could not fly back to India from Thailand, where they were competing in a scheduled tournament.
The AIFF hoped to fly the players to China directly from Thailand but the clubs – with whom the players are contracted – refused to grant them permission, leading to at least nine players getting stuck in the Southeast Asian country. After much haggling, the administration booked their tickets back to India late Monday night.
The timing of the Asian Games has caused a massive headache for Indian football’s stakeholders. The multi-discipline event coincides with major club events like the AFC Champions League, where Mumbai City will host Neymar’s Al Hilal FC in November, and the beginning of the new ISL season. However, with the Asiad taking place outside the dates designated by the world governing body FIFA for international matches, the clubs are not bound to let their players go.