The Constantine effect on Indian football

Stephen Constantine’s influence on the Indian national team has been quite noteworthy considering the country’s journey in the international arena, where the achievements have remained few and far between in the last three decades.

Constantine on the sidelines of the Asian Cup match against Thailand, which India won 4-1.   -  AFP

The name Stephen Constantine has an intrinsic association with a lot of happenings in Indian football. There has been a running battle between his supporters and critics about the quantum of achievements, but it remains a fact that the Englishman has shepherded the Indian national football team for the longest period of time in the new millennium. His influence on the team has been quite noteworthy considering the country’s journey in the international arena, where the achievements have remained few and far between in the last three decades.

An attempt at assessing the outspoken coach’s tenure will definitely prompt one to begin the process from the end, especially when India crashed out of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup after showing a lot of promise. The Englishman laid down his papers after the outcome, restarting the process of introspection about the future of Indian football.

India had started on a brilliant note in the tournament, handing Thailand a 4-1 defeat. That was a huge win considering that India was almost always subjugated by Thailand on the football field ever since its last victory in 1986 at the Merdeka Tournament.

The win started an avalanche of congratulations for Constantine and the Indian team, engendering a belief that the national side had truly come of age. But the celebrations appeared to be shortlived as Sunil Chhetri & Co. lost the next two matches to host United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which continued to be India’s Asian Cup nemesis. India was expected to make it to the next round considering the fact that the field was bigger at 24 teams. If India had made it to the next stage, then Constantine would have been credited with giving the country its next best success since 1964, when India was the runner-up in the continental championship in Israel.

Constantine’s valedictory message was short and precise: “I was here for four years. My objective from day one was to qualify for the Asian Cup. I have done that and we have broken a few records. I am proud of the players for what they have given. I have to thank the AIFF (All India Football Federation) for the support. My cycle has finished. It is time for me to move on.”

Constantine has had an eventful association with Indian football. His first stint, between 2002 and 2005, saw the Indian youth team setting a milestone by winning the LG Cup in Vietnam in August 2002. Always looking to create a pool of talent sourced from club football in the country, he was credited with infusing life in a moribund system that saw the national side sliding into the depths of underperformance. He was named the Asian Football Confederation’s manager of the month in October 2003 for the work he did with the Indian national team.

The same coach returned adding a wealth of experience to his credentials exactly 10 years after he had ended his first stint. When Constantine returned in February 2015, the morale of the team was down following two years under Dutchman Wim Koevermans.

Constantine with captain Sunil Chettri at a training session. When he took charge, the Englishman quickly realised that the style of “total football” that his predecessor had tried to drill into the team was not working and he overhauled it to a format that the players could grasp.   -  PTI

 

With a fair knowledge of Indian conditions, Constantine redrafted the Indian side while infusing new talent identified from the youth teams. Almost immediately after Constantine assumed office, India regained the SAFF Championship.

This did a lot of good to the sagging morale of the national side, which began preparing for 2018 World Cup qualification. Constantine quickly realised that the style of “total football” that Koevermans had tried to drill into the team was not working and he overhauled it to a format that the players could grasp. The coach also started working on the youth or the under-23 side looking to groom talent that would make it to the senior side one day. Going by what the statisticians have to say, around 40 new names got the national call-up as Constantine tried to lend a new strain of dynamism to the Indian side.

India’s effort to qualify for the World Cup came to nought once again as it crashed out in the second round, losing seven of eight matches.

Then, in a new qualification format for the Asian Cup, India made the most of the draw and reached the third round, and rode on a 13-match unbeaten run that continued till late last year. As India celebrated its Asian Cup qualification, there came the big news of the country entering the top 100 in the FIFA rankings. This was an improvement of more than 70 rungs in a span of roughly two years as India reached 96th in July 2017, which was its second best since 1996. This raised a few eyebrows as India had had no major wins in international events outside its shores and still managed to remarkably improve its rankings.

The detractors did not have enough say as India hosted and won tournaments like the Tri-nation Series in 2017 and the Intercontinental Cup a year after as Constantine strategically prepared his side for the Asian Cup.

But an injury-time penalty by Bahrain to beat India in its final group league match put paid to the aspirations of the national side, thereby ending the dreams of the millions of Indians hoping for a renaissance in the country’s football.