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Asian Cup prelims: India football coach Igor Stimac gave details of players to astrologer, picked team on his advice

“Hi dear friend, you can check charts for each player from the list for 11 June. Kick off time is at 20.30.”

ON June 9, 2022, 48 hours before India were scheduled to face Afghanistan in a crucial Asian Cup qualifier in Kolkata, national football team coach Igor Stimac sent this message to Bhupesh Sharma, an astrologer from Delhi NCR, who was introduced to him by a top All India Football Federation (AIFF) official, The Indian Express has learnt.

The “list” Stimac referred to had the names of the probable 11 for the game, a must-win for an out-of-form and injury-ridden India to remain in contention for the prestigious continental championship.

Within hours, the astrologer replied with his remarks against each name: “Good”; “can do very well. Needs to avoid over confidence”; “a below average day”; “a very good day for him but might get over aggressive”; “not recommended for the day”.

An hour before kick-off on June 11, when India’s team for the match was declared, two established names whose stars weren’t favourable, according to the astrologer, did not make the cut.

This conversation wasn’t a one-off.

Asian Cup prelims: India football coach gave details of players to astrologer, picked team on his advice

Freedom Sale

Indeed, there are close to 100 messages, purportedly exchanged between Stimac, a former Croatian international, and Sharma in May-June 2022. India played four matches during this period: a friendly against Jordan followed by three Asian Cup qualifiers against Cambodia, Afghanistan and Hong Kong.

Before each game, the messages show Stimac was in touch with Sharma. Not only do these messages put a question mark on the integrity of the Indian team’s selection process, they also raise issues of propriety — vital team information being shared with an “outsider” runs the risk of being misused.

The purported messages, reviewed by The Indian Express, reveal a telling pattern, all player names have been withheld to protect their identities:

* Before each match, Stimac sought inputs of the astrologer before finalising his team and shared injury updates as well as substitution strategies.

* In one early conversation, Stimac wrote: “Hi dear Bhupesh, it was a pleasure meeting you and discussing future work! I would kindly ask you to provide opinion on the following players.” He went on to share the date, time and place of birth of four players, three of whom represented India at the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup.

* Stimac passed on the list of 24 squad members, bearing similar details, before a friendly match against Jordan on May 28, 2022. After Sharma sent his recommendations, Stimac shared the fitness details of two players, expressing concerns about their injuries.

* In another conversation, astrologer Sharma told Stimac that it wasn’t an ‘ideal day or phase” for an attacking midfielder. Stimac then requested Sharma to compare this player’s stars with those of three other attackers. Sharma replied within minutes, with the player in question ranked third in his order of preference. That player did not start the game against Jordan and came on as a second-half substitute.

* After India’s defeat in that game on May 28, Stimac discussed individual performances of a few players, hinted at changing the squad for the Asian Cup qualifiers and commented that against a team like Jordan, “we can’t consider our physically weak players even if they are in great phase.”

Sharma agreed and replied: “We can’t fight race and body types in such kind of high energy games. And Indian history in football is pathetic. Even in cricket it took a century to reach where they are today.”

* For the Asian Cup qualifiers in Kolkata from June 8 to 14, the duo decided to meet and discuss “two days prior” to each game.

* Ahead of the first qualifying match against Cambodia on June 8, Stimac shared his preferred starting 11 along with a list of reserve players. He added that three players were “coming from injuries so we would like to save them for (the) second game”.

* On June 12, a day after the second game against Afghanistan, which India struggled to win 2-1, Sharma messaged Stimac: “Do let me know how close we were in this match player analysis as per charts when you get free.”

Stimac responded: “Everything was spot on, I will explain to you when we meet.” The following afternoon, Stimac and Sharma met to discuss India’s playing 11 for the match against Hong Kong. India won that game and qualified for the Asian Cup.

Astrologer Sharma did not respond to calls and messages. Praful Patel, who was the president of the AIFF at the time this exchange took place, told The Indian Express that he “was not aware or told” about the issue.

Then secretary-general of AIFF, Kushal Das, admitted he introduced Stimac to Sharma in May 2022.

“I met him at a meeting. He (Sharma) had worked for a lot of telecom companies and Bollywood personalities. What they presented was that astrological timings and the current phase of players can help motivate people into taking the right decisions,” Das told The Indian Express.

He added: “That time, I was worried if India would qualify for the Asian Cup and so was Igor, let me be very honest. It was not a comfortable situation. For me, the most important thing was that India should qualify. So I told him (Sharma) that I will put you in touch with the coach and if he likes it, he thinks your services can be utilised, he can get back to me. Igor was very convinced and they were in Kolkata throughout.”

When asked why he used the astrologer and acted on his advice, Stimac said: “Bhupesh was recommended to me and I was convinced (by others) that I have to check upon his possible effects in sports…No more than that. I requested another foreign assistant coach which was never even considered and was shocked to find out the size of Bhupesh’s contract…”

When asked about Sharma’s contract, Das said: “Since we used his professional services for two months, we paid him around Rs 12-15 lakh. That didn’t seem a huge amount since India qualified for the Asian Cup.”

Told about the exchange, Das said that he was not aware of the details of conversations between Stimac and Sharma. “In my 12 years with AIFF, I have never discussed team selections with the coach or anyone else,” Das said.

Incidentally, Patel’s tenure as the head of AIFF ended last year following a tumultuous period during which India was banned by FIFA due to governance issues. Das, who had been the secretary general for more than a decade, resigned at the same time, citing medical reasons.

Current AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey did not reply to a message seeking his response while general-secretary Shaji Prabhakaran, asked about the coach-astrologer chats, declined to comment.

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These revelations come when the Indian team’s fortunes are on the upswing as it climbs into the top 100 of the world.

Incidentally, Stimac is embroiled in a tussle with the Indian Super League clubs, who have played hardball in releasing players for the national team for important international assignments, including the Asian Games starting next week.

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Recently, the AIFF issued a show-cause notice to the coach following an interview with The Indian Express, where Stimac said, among other things, that he “didn’t come to India to lick a**es, and wasn’t afraid of telling the truth.”

© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

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