Club star, pop artist: Croatian legend is India coach

Igor Stimac, Igor Stimac indian coach, indian football team, indian football team coach, indian football team new coach, Stephen Constantine, indian football
Stimac (left) steered Croatia to 2014 World Cup playoffs.

A DEFENSIVE pillar of Croatia’s first golden generation. A club legend in England. A signatory to a homophobic petition. A pop artist. An unsuccessful entrepreneur. A successful winemaker. A self-proclaimed patriot. A trainer with a modest record. And now, India’s football coach.

On Wednesday, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) officially unveiled Igor Stimac, 51, as the successor to Stephen Constantine, the Englishman who chose not to renew his contract that expired in January.

Stimac is, arguably, the biggest name to coach India. A muscular defender during his playing days, he was regarded as one of the leaders of the legendary Croatian side that finished third at the 1998 World Cup. It was their best-ever result before finishing runners-up in Russia last year — Stimac coached more than half of that side during his 15-month stint in 2012-13.

Outside the football field, the new coach’s life is peppered with colourful, at times controversial, episodes. In 2000, while being an active player, Stimac started a betting company, which went bankrupt after five years. Then, he joined the family business of producing olive oil and manufacturing wine before dabbling in another hobby — music.

Stimac was a vocalist and played guitar for ‘The Bohems’ and his single, ‘Mary and Katie’, was No. 1 in Croatia for four months during the 1998 World Cup. “I think the sales were really down to Croatia doing well in the tournament rather than my voice,” he had quipped then. Stimac went on to start two discotheques of his own.

His flamboyant personality and fierce performance made him the darling of the terraces in England, where he gained immense popularity while playing for Derby County. He captained the team to the Premier League in his debut season, and was voted by fans in their “greatest-ever XI” while the club named its lounge after him in 2014.

However, the same factors — personality and performance — have led to heavy criticism in his own country. On May 14, 2013, Stimac, who was branded “gay” by his one-time rival on the pitch, Serbia’s Sinisa Mihajlovic, signed a petition against same-sex marriage and gay couples adopting children. It was part of a nationwide referendum on gay marriages, which were banned later that year. According to Aleksandar Holiga, editor-in-chief of Croatian website Telesport, the petition made him “overwhelmingly unpopular”.

Stimac has also portrayed himself as a nationalist figurehead. Having played at a time when the war in the Balkans was at its peak, he told Croatian news magazine Nacional in 2003 that his “only regret is not being able to fight in the war”. After he was made the Croatia coach, Stimac broke the tradition of the national team training in Slovenia for home matches, claiming that it “wasn’t patriotic”.

Under Stimac, Croatia climbed to fourth in the world rankings and reached the playoffs of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. But he resigned after a string of poor results. Stimac later coached club sides in Croatia, Iran, and Qatar but with little success. His decision to become India’s coach has been met with scepticism in Croatia. “People are surprised that they picked Stimac and not someone whose name carries some weight,” Holiga said.

However, a member of AIFF’s technical committee, said: “This appointment is a signal that we are serious. To take the next step, who can be better than someone who has played the World Cup and coached players who have reached a World Cup final?” Stimac is likely to take charge of the team, ranked 101, on Monday.

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