Development, AIFF style

THE most successful coach of Indian football in recent times, the Anglo-Cypriot Stephen Constantine, has met the same fate as most of his non-Indian predecessors. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has announced that the JCT Coach, Sukhvinder Singh, who had coached the national team earlier, will take over the reins until the Doha Asian Games next year, making it clear that Constantine's tenure is over.

Indeed, if the Federation had its way it would have sacked him soon after the World Cup qualifiers where India fared miserably, losing by a tennis score to Japan. Because Constantine's contract expires only in mid-June, any hasty step would have invited sanctions from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which had a role in his appointment.

Losing to Japan by a big margin at home and away was not a surprise result considering the stature of the Asian champion. But the reverses nonetheless came as fodder for his detractors. It is ironic that for one hailed as manna from heaven after he guided the national team to a rare LG Cup triumph in Ho Chi Minh city in 2002, the first by a non-South East Asian country in 32 years, there is an effort now to ease him out. For a sport in which India has little to show in terms of achievement, the win in Vietnam understandably produced much euphoria and Constantine was an instant hit.

A year later in what was a highly diluted but much hyped Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad, Constantine was in the news again when India finished runner up to Uzbekistan. Though the Uzbek team was an under-19 squad, which had come to get valuable practice prior to the FIFA Junior World Cup tournament, India's silver medal performance made the organisers happy. What is more, Constantine was adjudged by the AFC as the `Coach of the month (October)'. Constantine's recognition mirrored, in a way, AFC's appreciation of the developments happening in India, a country which it reckons a `sleeping giant'.

But the dream soon turned into a nightmare. Constantine's good days changed dramatically. That he was uncomfortable in having his way with the football administration was apparent from his outspoken views at times on player availability and development in general. His brusque handling of former Indian players, some of them stalwarts, pleased none.

But where Constantine must have courted frustration was, as the national coaches before him would agree, in not realising that Indian football cannot break free of the shackle of clubs. It was Constantine's major complaint that the clubs do not cooperate when it comes to releasing players for national camps. Consequently, late arrival of players in the camp made a mockery of the preparation before important international assignments. Constantine cited this as a major reason for India's indifferent and inconsistent performances in general.

Commitment of the players, particularly the seniors, for the national cause was a corollary. Their loyalty factor towards clubs upset Constantine. It is a different matter that players found him useful. Bhaichung Bhutia even subscribed to the view that "India's best days in football were during his period". Constantine himself claimed that he had broken the culture divide in the squad and made the boys hungry for success.

In the final analysis, Indian football remains the same — stagnant. The Federation has also not done the national cause any good by asking a tested hand to take over from Constantine. Nobody is arguing that Sukhvinder Singh, who had coached the Indian team that won the SAF Cup in 1999 in Goa, cannot fill the void. But by bringing in the same man who had earlier given way to Constantine, the Federation is not sending the right signal. Clearly `Sukhi' will be aware that his is a temporary job and more significantly, being a coach of an NFL team, it is not going to be easy for him to handle both responsibilities.

It is a pity that the Federation has let the sport drift once again by its ad-hocism and it has undone the efforts of the AFC to revamp the system with seminars, workshops and even by some plain speaking. To put it simply, the administrators are unable to decide the type of coach that India needs. Each time the subject of a foreign coach crops up, talks of `affordability' surface as well, which is very unfortunate. Instead, the Federation should concentrate on who is best equipped to give positive results, and on making a good coach a viable prospect.

In keeping with Vision Asia, a pet project of AFC, India should be taking positive steps to keep pace with development in the continent. Having a selection committee in place and ensuring that the national coach interacts with it can be considered an acceptable first step. But, the Federation has to take a firm stand on the issue of having a foreign coach.