As Croatia’s coach, Igor Stimac had carved out a reputation of being a ‘macho patriot.’ “He appeals to patriotism and things like that to galvanize his players,” Croatian football expert Alexander Holiga had told this paper days after Stimac was named India’s coach in 2019.
Shades of this have been visible throughout his Indian stint. “This is new India,” Stimac roared after his players snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat against a low-ranked Bangladesh months into his tenure.
But never has it been so prominent. After he was shown a red card against Pakistan in India’s opening match of the SAFF Championship, for what he claimed to be an ‘unjustified decision’, Stimac warned: “I will do it again when needed… Jai Hind, let’s go Croatia.”
He did. On his return to the dugout on Tuesday against Kuwait, Stimac was given the marching orders once again.
Both cards, in hindsight, looked avoidable. Against Pakistan, perhaps trying to stop them from taking a quick throw-in, Stimac pushed the ball out of the thrower’s hand from behind, which led to a heated argument and, ultimately, a send-off.
IND vs PAK sees RED in the first half
— FanCode (@FanCode) June 21, 2023
As ‘promised’, he did it again against Kuwait. Stimac interfered when a Kuwaiti player was taking a throw-in, which earned him a caution. Minutes later, the yellow turned into red after the fourth referee flagged another offense by the India coach, who got into an argument with players and officials.
Pakistan lacked the quality to punish India but against a stronger Kuwait, whose world ranking of 145 is highly misleading, it proved to be the turning point. India had controlled the match admirably and with a lot of guts until then.
After he was sent off, however, the match descended into chaos and the hosts lost the plot: Rahim Ali, a young forward, later got a direct red for misbehaviour and an unfortunate own goal from Anwar Ali meant India had to settle for a draw, finish second in their group and play in the tougher of the two semifinals.
Assistant coach Mahesh Gawli panned the referees. “Our coach was just having a conversation with the player and the referee, after talking with the line officials, approached him (Stimac) and showed the card. They were targeting him,” the former India international said.
The excuse didn’t cut with the All India Football Federation. It is learnt that senior AIFF officials spoke to Stimac after Tuesday’s game and urged him to keep his emotions in check. “The message has been conveyed to him that rather than complaining about refereeing and other things, the focus should be on the game because we are playing better,” an official said.
Former India defender Gouramangi Moirangthem, too, called for more control in the dugout. “I am seeing a lot of positives in the team in all different departments. The coaches are working really hard, too. But two red cards in three games brings some sort of chaos in the dugout. Personally, I see a lot of potential in this team. Many of them are young and determined to prove themselves and achieve more. It’s all the more reason that the group needs to be managed properly. I would like to see him have more control in this process,” Gouramangi said.
‘Mangi’, as he is fondly called, has a point. Half of the players in the Indian squad are aged less than 25. Most of them have only recently made their international debut and are still learning the ropes. They might not exactly need hand holding but a lot of them still depend on instructions from the touchline during a match.
The South Asian Championship might be inconsequential in the bigger picture. But as India look towards more serious fixtures, including the King’s Cup in Thailand, Merdeka Cup in Malaysia, the 2026 World Cup qualifiers and ultimately the Asian Cup, they will need their coach on the bench, and not in the stands from where he oversaw the proceedings after being sent off against Kuwait.
In his defence, Stimac will point to the fact that he’s always been like this. A muscular defender who was one of the pillars of the legendary Croatian side that finished third at the 1998 World Cup, he has always let his emotions flow while propagating his image of being a chest-thumping patriot.
Stimac’s antics did not win him many fans in Croatia and he continues to divide opinions within the big bubble that is Indian football. But to a certain extent, his ways have worked, evidenced by the nine-game unbeaten run. A bigger testimony was the result against Kuwait on Tuesday.
Hours before they became a part of what turned out to be a 90-minute slugfest, Stimac posted a screenshot of the result when India last played Kuwait back in 2010 – a humiliating 9-1 spanking for India.
Thirteen years later, that they came within minutes of pulling off a famous win before eventually being held to a 1-1 draw points to the gap India have closed on their West Asian rivals.
The morning after, Stimac would’ve loved for this to be the talking point. Instead, he’s become the headline.