IMAGE: Igor Stimac hit out at ISL organisers. Photograph: Ibrahem Alomari/Reuters
India football team head coach Igor Stimac, on Sunday, lashed out at the Indian Super League (ISL) organisers Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) and clubs for not releasing players for the Asian Games as the national federation was forced to stitch an under-strength ragtag side at the last moment after hectic parleys.
While Stimac did not take names while addressing a virtual press conference ahead of team departure but dropped enough hints about who all scuppered his and AIFF’s plan to field a strong squad, comprising players from current senior national side.
“If I knew that certain elements will stop us from going with the best possible team, I would have rather picked all the players from the I-League and request to train with them for two months and prepare with them for the Asian Games,” a fuming Stimac said during media interaction.
“It would not have been much different,” he added, making clear what he thinks about the third-string players that ISL clubs have released.
As the squad was stitched at the eleventh hour after the ISL clubs refused to release their players and organisers FSDL did not entertain a request to delay the start of the league by a few days, Stimac informed that the team will play its first match on Tuesday against China without a single session.
“Players are arriving at Delhi airport at 5-6pm today. We are going to meet there and we have a flight at 10 pm to Hong Kong. We will wait (at Hong Kong airport) for another 5-6 hours for another flight which will take us to Hangzhou,” Stimac’s caustic comment wasn’t lost on anyone.
Such has been Indian team’s plight that they face formidable Chinese team on Tuesday after reaching Games Village on Monday.
“We will reach there (Hangzhou) at 5pm (on Monday) and there will be no single training session prior to the game (next day). We have to discuss things with the players at the airport and during flight so that they take rest as soon as possible after reaching there and have some good sleep prior to the match.”
It has been a complete mess, not seen often in Indian sports. And certainly not expected after the sports ministry gave a special exemption to field the team in the Asian Games despite not fulfilling the eligibility criteria.
The AIFF named a 22-member squad, which was more or less the near full strength senior national team with the likes of Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in it.
Thirteen players were not released by their respective ISL clubs, including Jhingan and first-choice goalkeeper Gurpreet. A 17-member team with Chhetri as the only notable face was named initially.
On Friday, the AIFF announced a revised squad of 22 after hectic parleys with Jhingan in it, besides two more senior players in Chinglensana Singh and Lalchungnunga.
Stimac is not sure of the results from the team but remained optimistic and said there is a possibility to make it to the knock-out round.
“There is a question mark on how much we can do with this team without spending one single day together to prepare. Five-six of these players are not involved in the ISL matches and most of them never worked with me.
“We will look at the tournament as a hope and yes there is a possibility to qualify from the group but to do that some luck need to be there in our side. Also, the boys need to produce the best performance of their lives.”
After the match against China on September 19, India face Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24) in their group matches. The top two teams from the six groups will make it to the pre-quarterfinals, with four best-ranked third-placed sides also qualifying.
Stimac said he would think more about Bangladesh and Myanmar and would keep Chhetri and Jhingan out of the China game to make them fresh for the remaining matches.