Igor Stimac, head coach of the Indian football team, lashed out on Sunday 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 together an under-strength ragtag side at the last minute after frantic negotiations.
While Stimac did not take names during a virtual press conference before team departure, he did drop enough hints about who sabotaged his and AIFF's intention to field a strong squad comprised of players from the current senior national side.
"If I knew that certain elements would stop us from going with the best possible team, I would have rather picked all the players from the I-League and requested to train with them for two months and prepare with them for the Asian Games," a fuming Stimac said during a 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.
Stimac informed that the team will play its first match against China on Tuesday without a single session because the ISL clubs refused to release their players and the organisers FSDL did not entertain a request to delay the start of the league by a few days.
"Players are arriving at Delhi airport at 5-6 pm 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.
After arriving at Games Village on Monday, the Indian squad will face a powerful Chinese team on Tuesday.
"We will reach there (Hangzhou) at 5 pm (on Monday) and there will be no single training session before the game (next day). We have to discuss things with the players at the airport and during the flight so that they rest as soon as possible after reaching there and have some good sleep before the match."
It's been a complete shambles, which is unusual in Indian sports. And certainly not expected when the sports ministry granted a special dispensation for the team to compete in the Asian Games despite not meeting the eligibility requirements.
The AIFF picked a 22-man roster that was nearly full strength for the senior national team, including Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan, and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Thirteen players, including Jhingan and first-choice custodian Gurpreet, were not released by their respective ISL clubs. Initially, a 17-member team was named, with Chhetri as the lone recognisable face.
The AIFF revealed a revised squad of 22 players on Friday, including Jhingan, as well as two additional experienced players in Chinglensana Singh and Lalchungnunga.
Stimac is unsure about the team's performances, but he remains positive and believes they have a chance to go to the knock-out phase.
"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 needs to be there on our side.
Also, the boys need to produce the best performance of their lives."
Following the encounter against China on September 19, India's group fixtures will be against Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24). The top two teams from each of the six groups will go to the pre-quarterfinals, with the top four third-placed teams also qualifying.
Stimac stated that he would focus more on Bangladesh and Myanmar and that he would keep Chhetri and Jhingan out of the China game to keep them fresh for the remaining matches.
(With PTI inputs)