Igor Stimac has said he "would never have accepted" the Indian team's preparation facilities ahead of their three remaining Asian Cup qualifiers in Qatar, had he known the situation beforehand.
However, he says he will not have any problems motivating his team, saying his players are aware that this is "their one small chance to make people in India happy", given the widespread devastation caused by the pandemic.
"We were happy when we got to know that we'll play all three matches in Qatar, because they have great facilities here," said Stimac. "But if I [had known] everything would be like it is today, I [would] never [have] accepted. This is far away from proper preparation for WCQ, but it is what it is."
Stimac said that he had expected to be able to use the gym and a meeting hall but that these were not possible. "We are [doing] our morning sessions in the [corridors] in front of our rooms and our players are eating only room delivery. That's not proper preparation for football players. I am quite sure the Qatari team is not in the same condition. Simple as that."
- Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) May 22, 2021
He said that the one chance for the team to work together was the evening training session.
This also compounds another issue that Stimac faces -- the match fitness of his players. Earlier, the WCQs had been scheduled for a short time after the end of the domestic season, which would have meant players going into the games match-fit. "We have a very limited number of players in a decent condition to play three games in 12 days. They are from FC Goa and Bengaluru FC, the teams which had more recent training sessions because they were playing in Asia. Spending 10 days here before playing three games is not enough to provide football that everybody is expecting," he said.
Stimac used a comparison with the squads of the other teams to emphasise his point. "When you compare with other teams, the situation is as follows -- Qatar is a fully-prepared team, Bangladesh finished their season on May 10, and 23 out of the 28 Afghan players are playing in Europe or the U.S., and those players are in full competitive swing. They will be fully fit. On the other hand, you know the situation of our team."
Stimac has had a mixed start to his India career -- two good performances (a creditable 2-1 defeat at the hands of Oman, and a 0-0 draw with Qatar) were followed by two underwhelming ones (1-1 draws against Afghanistan and Bangladesh), before the entire footballing calendar was brought to a halt by the pandemic.
The coach, though, insisted that the goals he had set for himself when taking up the job hadn't changed. "We were very clear at the beginning of our work that we were going to use the initial two years of our work to [try to] qualify for Asian Cup. I am very convinced we will qualify from any position we occupy in the group," he said.
Finishing fifth out of five still allows teams to qualify to the Asian Cup proper via the playoffs, which is what India did for the last edition. It is post these qualification games, Stimac said, that they will "get the chance to do the proper work, which will provide great football and results. Then we can judge our work."
"Let's be patient," he said. "When everyone was very excited about drawing Qatar in Doha, I said, 'Come on, be patient. Don't fly now, because if you fly too high, when you hit the ground it's going to be painful.' We need more time to work together, we need more time to play friendlies -- even here we tried to organise a friendly vs Philippines, and despite both federations agreeing, we were not allowed to. It is what it is, let's be patient."
He also spoke about the need to provide youngsters time to adapt and learn, and said the Dubai camp organised in March had been a step in that direction. "We used this Dubai camp for the best performers from the ISL. Most of the guys were very young and they never had the chance to play international football against sides like Oman and the UAE. This was a chance for all those who deserved it, to check out how much they can do at this level. The answer was that they did pretty well against Oman (drew 1-1) but the second game (UAE won 6-0) was far away from good, and that is our reality."
He added that it is unlikely many youngsters would get playing time in the coming games because the need of the hour is for experienced players. "Most of the youngsters are here precisely for one reason -- to feel the atmosphere of international, competitive games."
It would be fair, then, to expect a more familiar lineup than the ones we saw in March. With Sunil Chhetri leading from the front. "We need to be clever because we have three games in 12 days. I need to make a decision on when it is the best time to use Sunil," he said. "Obviously, for us the most important games here are against Afghanistan and Bangladesh. At the end of this preparation in 5-6 days' time, I will have a clearer picture on the physical condition of our players and then I'll decide on the team."
With qualification for the World Cup out of the picture (India can finish third at the most), there might have been doubts about the motivation of the players, but Stimac dismissed it instantly. "I do not have to waste time trying to motivate them," he says. "They are well aware of the situation around the world, especially in India. People are dying around us, families are suffering. The situation is terrible, and we have one small chance to make people in India happy. We need to work hard to take this chance, grab it with both hands and somehow bring smiles on the faces of our people."
India play Qatar on June 3, Bangladesh on June 7 and Afghanistan on June 15.