5 years of Igor Stimac: Does he deserve more time?

Igor Stimac. AIFF Media
"If I don't take India to the third round [of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers], I will leave." Igor Stimac, 25 March 2024

India's 2-1 loss to Qatar, and the end of their third-round dreams, have raised again the questions surrounding head coach Igor Stimac's future. Stimac himself was non-committal about his future after the defeat, and there are complications for the AIFF even if they do want to sack him - notably the sizeable compensation package owed to him (Stimac is on contract till 2026).

However, two very recent public failures since that contract was signed - the AFC Asian Cup and the FIFA World Cup qualifying exit - have made imperative a discussion on his tenure, and the merits of keeping him on.

To assess Stimac's performance, it's important to recall where India were when he started. He took over from Stephen Constantine in 2019, after India finished bottom of their group in the AFC Asian Cup. India were ranked 101 in the world at the time. In his first tournament, the King's Cup, India lost 3-1 to higher-ranked Curacao before defeating hosts Thailand 1-0 to finish third in the four-team tournament.

The highs

Stimac presided over India's best year in terms of silverware in 2023 - an unprecedented three trophies - and a sequence in which India broke into the top 100 of the FIFA rankings (a first since 2017), record their best-ever run of clean sheets and gain new fans with an exciting style of play.

However, that spell of results came against Myanmar (WR 163), Kyrgyz Republic (WR 100), Mongolia (WR 191), Vanuatu (WR 172), Lebanon (WR 120), Pakistan (WR 195) and Nepal (WR 178) - all teams below India's ranking (or just a spot or two above, like Kyrgyz Republic and Lebanon) at the time.

Stimac's best-ever result came against Qatar, a 0-0 against the full-strength Asian champions in September 2019 that sparked hope of greater things to come.

The lows

Five years after Stimac taking over though, India have dropped to 121 in the FIFA rankings. That's largely because India could not beat Afghanistan, ranked 151, over two games. Where India were beating the beatable sides in a purple patch in 2023, their style of play came undone against higher-ranked opposition since.

In 12 matches since winning the SAFF Cup in June 2023, India have won once - a 1-0 win away to Kuwait. Seven of those matches were against higher-ranked opponents, two each against lower-ranked Kuwait and Afghanistan and one against Lebanon.

At the 2023 AFC Asian Cup India lost all three matches without scoring a goal, their worst performance according to the numbers, and their Asian Games showing was no better. The downward spiral culminated in the exit from a FIFA World Cup qualifying group where India were the second-best team on paper but came third.

Those performances stem from a number of off-field issues linked to coaching, preparation and overall team management.

Team selection

The basic, fundamental need of a national team manager is to pick the right team - and Stimac has had mixed results here. Prior to achieving qualification for the 2022 AFC Asian Cup, Stimac had played turgid, sometimes desperate football with a group of experienced, if limited players. He then opened up to playing talented youngsters and the effect was immediate, a more positive, attractive style of play - leading to the golden year of 2023.

Stimac then stuck with those players in 2024, regardless of their club form - and again the effect was visible, as the players had middling domestic seasons in 2024. Stimac ignored emerging, in-form players and when he eventually relented (playing Vikram Partap Singh and Jay Gupta, among others) it was too late.

He did play Apuia, Amey Ranawade, Nandhakumar Sekar, Mahesh Singh and Ishan Pandita but they were afforded only a few scattered appearances. Sivasakthi Narayanan was ignored when in form for Bengaluru FC last year, and it's come back to haunt Stimac who's been desperate for a forward since. It also speaks volumes that Apuia, a regular of a multiple title-winning Mumbai City side, opted to appear for academic exams and asked not to be drafted in the squad for the latest round of FIFA WCQs.

National team coaches are known to have favourites, but to have the same 25-man squad without blooding in new faces was foolhardy. Stimac has couched this as 'loyalty' in press conferences but, had he blooded in more players during his reign, he would have had a wider pool of players familiar with his tactics to choose from, and options when his favoured faces lost form domestically.

In-game management

Once the team has been picked though, Stimac's in-game management has been questionable, and can be said to have cost India qualification to the third round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, as outlined here.

His desperate tactics in the last few months - he's thrown the kitchen sink as India have chased games, bringing on attacker after attacker - often seem like throwing mud at the wall and hoping something sticks. Stimac's substitutions have, in fact, hindered what little good India have managed - as it was against Qatar, when Rahim Ali, who had stitched together all of India's excellent forward play, was replaced by Liston Colaco, who has never played the lone #9 role for his club.

Scouting talent (or not)

In over 5 years of his reign, Stimac has attended ISL/I-League games a handful of times (often only the ISL final/Kolkata derby). Consider that there were 137 games this ISL season, and 156 I-League games in 2023/24 - over five years that's roughly 1400 games and Stimac's presence there can be counted on one's fingers. He can't be present at all of them, and he may have watched many of those games remotely, but consider the impact of a national team coach in the stands on the players, especially the juniors.

It's also a fact that watching players live is the best way to assess them, and Stimac not having done enough of this might explain the limited pool he drew from. That's why no Parthib Gogoi, playing for an unfancied NorthEast United FC that don't represent the 'big games' that Stimac tends to attend. Nor Odisha's league-topping talents midway through last season (like Isak Vanlalruatfela). Vibin Mohanan, who replaced Jeakson Singh in midfield for Kerala Blasters was never afforded a shot, and Jeakson walked into India's starting lineups when fit - all while not featuring for his own club.

Playing Style

There's no doubt India have come a long way from Constantine's long-ball tactics. But just how much of that change has come because of Stimac?

Remember that he'd relied on a dour brand of football prior to late 2022, persisting with experienced old heads that could defend but offer little more. The change to a front-foot style was almost forced upon him - he could not ignore India's young talents lighting it up in the ISL for much longer. He does deserve credit for the change, but it's possible he'd have been out of a job had he not done so.

Stimac's football has failed to evolve beyond progression via the wings and opposing managers have figured India out. That style of play works against lower ranked sides - which is what happened in the first half of 2023 - but comes unstuck when playing a similarly or higher ranked side with an organised defence - which is what India faced since.\

The impression is that Stimac lacks confidence in his squad's ability to break down similar/higher ranked sides through the middle, often using a defensive double pivot in those games. It limits chance creation, and consequently places greater pressure on his forwards to convert the few opportunities they do get. It's no surprise then, that India went six games without a goal from open play till Lallianzuala Chhangte scored in their last. A bit of bravado on the pitch would not have hurt - Sahal Abdul Samad was used interchangeably with Brandon Fernandes, but why not opt for the pair together? Or even move Chhangte central, as opposed to left-back when chasing a game.

Nor has Stimac shown a Plan B; India produce more pacy centre forwards than they do the battering ram archetype, but he's never tailored his football to take advantage of that. It's a predictable style of football - and even Ashley Westwood, manager of Afghanistan but intimately aware of Indian football - could thwart Stimac's men. That too, with a team of less skilled players.


Stimac's refusal to take responsibility for poor results has been consistent over the last five years. Instead, he has a couple of go-to demands that he pushes. For example, his first instinct after India's exit against Qatar was to blame the referee (justifiably) but then he brought up, yet again, the issue of PIO/OCIs (People of Indian Origin / Overseas Citizens of India) being barred from representing the national team - a situation that he was aware of when he took the job and one that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Another issue he has repeatedly raised is the need for longer national camps, but that is a luxury few national managers enjoy. He's battled with stakeholders in domestic football for scheduling that will give him more time with his squad - but that would be at the cost of a structured domestic season. Yet even when he gets a long camp, as he did ahead of the most recent round of FIFA WCQs, Stimac has failed to deliver the results.


And ultimately, that is where the matter should be decided: for all of his acknowledged improvements, India have not had better results in the tournaments that matter. He deserves credit for the highs of 2023, but what Stimac had done then was ensure India beat the teams around them, which is a bare minimum. However, under Stimac, India were unable to ever punch above their weight - barring that solitary draw against Qatar. Over five years, for a country like India circling around the 100-mark in FIFA rankings in need of more, that's not enough.

There are far more fundamental, deep-rooted problems in Indian football, but one only has to witness the progress made by South-East Asian countries - Vietnam being a prime example - many with significantly smaller budgets, imperfect domestic structures and smaller player pools have made in the same time period, for the AIFF to legitimately question Stimac's apparent 'improvements'.

Should Stimac's reign continue, all the signs point to the national team treading water. There has been no evidence that the flaws visible over the past few years will be fixed: the same brand of easily-stopped football, the same passing-over of promising and in-form players, the same baffling tactics, the same excuses, and in all likelihood the same results, which would leave India floundering in the same 100-120 FIFA rank and another exit from the next AFC Asian Cup.

If the AIFF are serious about improving the fortunes of the national team, they have a lot of long-term improvements to make from the bottom-up, but in the short-term, they can start with the best option for all parties concerned. A new beginning - that comes with the end of the Igor Stimac era.