Constantine's goal: A team for the future

"I believe in this young team and I feel they are only going to get better," says India coach Stephen Constantine of his side that won the SAFF Cup.

Shooting straight… National coach Stephen Constantine.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

Sunil Chhetri (left) receives the SAFF Suzuki Cup from the Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Also in the frame are Subrata Pal (yellow jersey) and Arnab Mondal.   -  PTI

Stephen Constantine, in his second stint as the national coach, started with five consecutive losses. He then took the bold step of rebuilding the side for the future and the first thing he did was to improve the general fitness of the players and induct more youngsters into the national squad.

The victory against Guam in the World Cup qualifier ended the coach’s run of defeats. And the SAFF Cup triumph was a barometer to judge where India had reached under Constantine.

After India’s defeat of Afghanistan in the final of the SAFF Cup, Constantine took time off to speak to Sportstar.

Question: How significant was the SAFF Cup win? Do you think the young team performed according to your expectations?

Answer: The win is quite important for Indian football. I dedicate the victory to the Indian people. Of course, the boys have fulfilled my expectations. I don’t think many would have expected us to advance to the final — especially with such a young squad — let alone win it. I believe in this young team and I feel they are only going to get better. I reiterate we are trying to build a team for the future.

Do you think you have laid the foundation for the future Indian team?

One-hundred percent! Twenty-two players have made their international debut in the last 10 months. Of course, some of them would not be there but many have the experience of international games and I am sure the foundation has been laid to have a good, solid Indian team in the next few years. There has been competition for places in the team. But again, I need to stress there is still work to be done.

The next international fixture for India is in March — the World Cup qualifiers. In the interim, some players will be busy with the Hero I-League. Is there any plan to have a camp with players not playing in the I-League and then a short camp when the I-League takes a break? Is there a way you can get the services of players for a longer period?

We have asked the players to report on March 17 (after talking to the I-League), as there will be a break in the calendar. So, we will have a few more days than normal to prepare. Otherwise, you would be getting the players on March 21 to play on March 24 against Iran, that too an away match. We can’t continue like this. If we are to do well we need more time with the players. I am pleased that the I-League Department has been cooperative and I hope all the clubs will do so as well. It’s important for the clubs to understand that the success of the national team highlights the work they are doing in the I-League.

It suits the national coach if he gets three or four more days to prepare. I want the players to play for their clubs and I need the coaches to help me to help their players. Many of the players are selected for the clubs because they are international players.

Romeo Fernandez, Mandar Desai and a few players not in the I-League not reporting to the Indian camp is something unprecedented in Indian football. Do you think players are now not keen to play for their country?

I don’t ever feel there is a dilemma over club and country. For most players who come to play for their country, there is no greater honour than to be selected for the national team. With regard to Romeo and Mandar, I feel that they have missed the opportunity of gaining valuable experience at the international level. They should have reported to the National camp and we would have determined their fitness levels as we do with all the players. In fact, some of the players who reported to the camp — namely Sandesh Jhingan, Cavin Lobo and Seityasen Singh — were not fit enough to play international football and in an effort to protect them from aggravating their injuries we released them.

Are you in favour of a similar coaching style for all Indian teams — U-17, U-19 and the senior Indian team?

I believe there should be a similar style from top to bottom. Although the senior national coach has a limited lifespan, the national age-group teams should be playing a system that suits us — a system whereby it is easier for them to have a direct pathway to the national team.

We changed the system for the U-19 team to be closer to the senior national team and, as a result, we have already had one player who has come in (into the senior team) and gone into a similar position that he was playing in the U-19.

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