On 25 March, the Indian national football team clashed swords with Oman, hoping to gain vital experience against a strong continental rival. For much of the opening 45 minutes, India were second-best across the pitch, and they endured a period of struggle in which Oman fashioned themselves a first-half lead.
However, after the restart, India looked reinvigorated as they kept pushing and probing before they broke through, courtesy of Manvir Singh. The Blue Tigers held their own for the rest of the contest and earned an impressive draw " a stalemate that seemed to signal that India's sojourn into the higher echelons of continental football was on track.
In fact, plenty were reminded of the incredible 0-0 result the Blue Tigers secured against Qatar in September 2019. The aforementioned match was a part of the FIFA 2022 World Cup Qualifiers (second stage), meaning that Qatar fielded a relatively strong side. To place things into further context, that remains the only time Qatar have failed to garner three points in this particular World Cup qualifying (second stage) cycle.
Thus, the stalemate against Oman was looked upon as another marker highlighting India's growth under Igor Stimac. A few days later, though, all those theories came crashing down when the Blue Tigers were chastened by a 6-0 mauling by UAE.
Post the game, there was plenty of furore across the nation, with several even opining that India had actually regressed since the departure of Stephen Constantine.
However, when quizzed about the same by Firstpost.com, Rowllin Borges remarked that that was hardly the case, instead hinting that India were enjoying the much-publicized 'process' under Igor Stimac.
"The coach is doing quite a good job. He is trying to improve each player and I think he is doing very well with the younger players. He is helping them to grow as professionals, while telling them what they require to be good at the international level," the Indian midfielder said.
Rowllin also talked about how the encounter against the UAE had given the Indian footballers a better idea of the areas that needed to be rectified. In blunter terms, he quipped that the defeat actually told the Indians how far they need to traverse before being able to compete regularly against Asia's biggest gunslingers.
The record since Igor Stimac's appointment, though, paints a slightly different picture, for India have won just once under the Croat. More alarmingly, they've failed to see off the likes of Afghanistan and Bangladesh during that spell " something that has made people question his credentials.
Further fuel has been added to that argument courtesy of the crests India experienced prior to his installation at the helm. In 2019, the Blue Tigers produced a string of exceptional performances at the AFC Asian Cup " a tournament that was adorned with a remarkable 4-1 triumph against Thailand. While India lost the other two group fixtures (against Bahrain and UAE), they never looked like a fish out of water. Against the UAE though, in 2021, they found themselves on the diametrically opposite end of that spectrum.
However, it must be noted that India have opted to embark on a completely new adventure under Igor Stimac, with attractive football and possession being the guiding principles. That it has come after Stephen Constantine's prosaic approach, has only added to the Croat's challenges.
"Under Constantine, the onus was to be compact and play direct football. Under Stimac, we try to keep the ball and we are more open. I feel that is the one reason why we conceded so many goals against UAE recently. We tried to keep possession and tried to open up. That is perhaps the difference when we lost by two goals in 2019 and by six goals in 2021," Rowllin added.
Having said that, Rowllin, much like Stimac, is aware that India weren't particularly exceptional against the UAE, saying that the Blue Tigers were unable to implement the ideas Stimac had laid out, although he mentioned that it wasn't for a lack of effort.
"We are trying our level best. The coach is trying to get his ideas through to the players but I don't think we (players) are playing the best way or the way the coach wants. Together though, with the help of each other, I think we can do it (getting used to the new philosophy)," he said.
While the answer was that of a footballer who understood exactly what had transpired against the UAE, it also opened up a slightly different narrative " one that revolved around a singular identity in Indian football.
To put things into perspective, Indian football, as a whole, has grown manifold since the inception of the ISL. However, the success-driven nature of the competition has also given rise to several pragmatic coaches being hired, meaning that plenty of Indian footballers have been taught a philosophy that is considerably different to what Stimac would want, ideally.
Though Rowllin hasn't had such problems this season, considering he plays for Sergio Lobera's Mumbai City FC, it could be an aspect that contributes to a longer teething period. While Rowllin was understandably coy on the entire subject, he did provide a hint on how the acclimatization process was easier for footballers from Hyderabad FC and Mumbai City FC.
"It depends on the ISL clubs (the way they want to play). If you ask me, Sergio Lobera wants to play attractive and possession football. Some other coaches prefer to play direct football and it is something that completely depends on them," Rowllin opined.
"As for me, I think the way we play at Mumbai City FC and the way we play in the national team is pretty same. So, I personally don't have to adapt too much. Like in the last couple of games, there were a lot of players from Hyderabad FC and Mumbai City FC. Both teams play possession football and I don't think it was very difficult to adapt," the Mumbai City FC midfielder elaborated.
Hence, the aforementioned could be something that the top brass of Indian football could look at. For example, it might be a lot easier for players to adapt to the identity of the national team coach if they've been practicing something similar at ISL clubs.
Incidentally, the formative years of the ISL coincided with Constantine's tenure, meaning that the teams' values of being compact and playing counter-attacking football married perfectly. Now, though, with Stimac in charge, a concerted effort towards a different and prospectively fruitful avenue might be the way forward.
And, fortunately for India, Stimac has made no bones about his brand of football.
"Our ultimate vision is to keep the ball, be confident and be fearless in playing free-flowing football. We will try our level best to play the way he [Stimac] wants us to play. If we can keep the ball well against Qatar, who are one of the best sides in Asia, I think we can do good against other teams. I think we can keep that match as a base and try to move forward from there " step by step," Rowllin beamed.
The 'process' though, has its demerits as well, primarily because it doesn't materialize overnight. In India, where an entire nation is waiting to realize its vast potential, it might not even be too popular, for it usually takes an enormous investment of time.
Thus, it hasn't come as much of a surprise that countless individuals have jumped the gun on Stimac, even clamouring for his sacking. However, that is perhaps one aspect that the Indian football-watching population should guard against.
Not just because it takes a lot of failed experiments to stumble upon the perfect formula, but also because it is such a drastic change from how Indian football has been envisioned previously. By that, one means there should be a cumulative effort to not place emphasis on timelines " timelines that portray when India should be playing the Asian Cup or the World Cup.
"I think it is a little unfair to put a timeline. The World Cup remains our main target but firstly, we need to do good in Asia (the AFC Asian Cup). The most important thing is to concentrate on the upcoming Asian Cup and the World Cup qualifiers (in June 2021). We can't jump directly to the World Cup. It is important we do well in the friendlies also. We need to qualify each and every time for the Asian Cup and then we can take the step of looking at the World Cup" Rowllin said.
Furthermore, it is imperative one remembers the drastic effect negative comments could have on the players and the manager's psyche, especially when fortunes on the pitch aren't as rosy. Though Rowllin has a method to tide over those ebbs, others might find it a shade tougher.
"Everyone has different opinions and you can't stop them from it. But I feel it is better to give someone time so that he can progress with the players. I personally try to ignore it and concentrate on what I need to do as a footballer. I think if we win the next match, these things will go away. I would urge our fans to just be patient, believe in us and keep supporting us. The good times will come," Rowllin remarked.
Additionally, there have been several other factors (read: a forced COVID-19 break) that have disrupted the Croat's vision of scaling peaks that had been deemed insurmountable previously.
Though there might be a temptation to look at his most recent results and term them unacceptable, considering the lack of victories, it might be prudent to give him just a little more time. Not only because he seeks to propel India into the promised lands, but also because he has showcased the bravery and the courage to do things, his way.
Back in September, 2019, there were palpable signs that the Blue Tigers had indeed progressed under Stimac and that he was the perfect individual to help India navigate through tricky terrains.
15 coronavirus-ridden months later, though, the perception of his tenability to the role has tilted upside down. In fact, if Stimac were to not attain victory against Afghanistan and Bangladesh in June 2021, he might even be given the boot. That, though, is a mistake India simply can't make.
After all, the 'process', despite the unwanted attention it generates, is still the most feasible modus operandi to transform India from also-rans to continental heavyweights. Or, in Rowllin Borges' words, just a precursor before the 'good times' come along.