Stephen Constantine is no stranger to Indian Football having served as the chief coach of Indian Football from 2002 to 2005 and yet as the 53 year old Brit get readies for his second stint in India, the expectations are high from him. While the average rank in Constantine’ s first stint was 127, India now find themselves languishing at 171 position in the ranking table and as the AIFF gets ready to present him to the media on the 24th of this month, Constantine knows his task is well cut out. Besides focusing on the senior team, Constantine will also double up as the chief coach of the U-23 team.
A UEFA Pro License holder, Constantine achieved considerable success with Rwanda in his previous stint where he took the African side from 134th in the FIFA Rankings to 68 in a matter of a just six months. It was this success that got him the nod over North East United FC coach Ricki Herbert who was also in the reckoning for the coach of the Indian team. The most fond memory that the Indian fans have about Constantine is the LG Cup triumph in August 2002 where the Asian Games bound India U-23 team triumphed over the Singapore U-23 and Vietnam U-23 teams in the group stages to reach the semifinals. The India U-23 team led by an in form Baichung Bhutia then defeated an Indonesian club in the semifinals before defeating the senior Vietnam team in the finals to clinch the title. The India U-23 team gave a creditable performance in the 2002 Asian Games in Busan in the following month. Clubbed with Turkmenistan, Bangladesh and China, India defeated Turkmenistan and Bangladesh 3-1 and 3-0 respectively in their first two matches. With the qualification at stake, India took on China in their last group encounter and gave a fighting performance before going down 2-0. Constantine also guided India to the silver medal in the Afro Asian Games where India defeated Zimbabwe, then ranked 85 spots above India, in the semifinals before going to Uzbekistan in the finals. Constantine was awarded the AFC Coach of the month for his efforts with the Indian team in October 2003.
The going is likely to be tougher this time for Constantine. The Asian nations including the SAFF nations have made rapid strides and India are no longer the indomitable force in the SAFF region. The national team has failed to perform as per the expectations ever since it took part in the Asian Cup in 2011, which was expected to give a boast to Indian Football, and has only gone backwards under Wim Koevermans who resigned following an extended string of bad results. The first major challenge for Stephen Constantine is to win the preliminary round of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers which will also serve as the preliminary round qualifiers for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. India have been drawn to play Nepal, a team Constantine has coached before. A two leg encounter with matches on the 12th and 19th March will decide the faith of the Blue Tigers. A lot is riding on these matches as a loss here could mean no FIFA recognized match for India until 2019 and should this happen, it will be a massive setback for the national team. A win on the other hand will mean that India will get a got a shot at qualifying for the 2019 Asia Cup which will have 24 teams instead of 16.
The primary issue Stephen Constantine needs to work on is getting his team to play more and more friendly matches. India played only two matches in the last year and failed to win either of those despite playing at home. On the road, India has an even poor record – Team India have lost all of the last 10 away matches played against higher ranked nations. The team managed to scored twice in the ten matches and also conceded 27 goals. The last time India scored in an away match against teams ranked above it was at the start of 2012 when Oman beat India 5-1. In last fifteen matches played away from home, team India has manged to score only 10 goals with four of them coming against lowly ranked Guam. The last time Indian traveled abroad was in September 2013 when Indian team traveled to Nepal for the SAFF Cup.
Another important issue Constantine needs to solve in India’ dependence on Sunil Chhetri for goals. Chhetri has been doing the bulk of scoring for the Blue Tigers and the team has struggled to score goals in his absence – of the seven goals scored by India in the last five matches, Chhetri has scored five. The goals scored by team India are correlated to the goals scored by Chhetri and on most occasions Indiaa s goal drought has coincided with Chhetria s goal drought. Wim Koevermans had often been criticized for playing a single striker upfront, a strategy which backfired against teams which kept a tight leash on the Bengaluru FC skipper. Constantine needs to address this issue and look beyond Robin Singh for the second striker as the lanky striker has failed to impress despite being given various chances by Koevermans. The likes of Balwant Singh, Haokip, Udanta Singh and Jackichand Singh who have impressed in the I-League need to be given chances to prove their mettle.
Another related issue that Koevermans was often criticized for is the issue of sticking with the same set of players. Koevermans did little to breed in players from the U-23 and U-19 setup and even the top I League performers were not given a chance by him. The likes of Victorino Fernandes, Dawson Fernandes, Boithang Haokip , Harmanjot Khabra, Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Gilbert Oliveira among others were not given enough chances despite impressive performances in the I League. Constantine needs to scout for players in the I League and his assurance of giving chances to the U-19 and U-23 players in a recent interview is indeed a step in the right direction. Improper player selection has meant that Indian national team has often not played with the best players available and has naturally payed a price for it. A primary target for Constantine would be to ensure that the best eleven plays every time. With the likes of Sunil Chhetri, Mehatb Hossain, Syed Rahim Nabi and Gourmangi Singh close to turning 30, it is the right time to breed in the next generation of Indian footballers and give them sufficient playing time to develop.
The first and the most important task for Constantine however is the first round qualifiers against Nepal next month. A win will not only kick start Constantine’ s second innings on a high but will ensure him enough time to select new players when the next round of qualifiers are played in April. The fans are excited with his return and are looking up to him with a lot of hope. With Indian Football at an all time low, the expectations are high from Constantine given the positive results he had achieved in his first stint.