Stephen Constantine had a first stint with the Indian football team in the early 2000s, and was hired back by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 2015 (Pic: Twitter, AFC).
It seems Stephen Constantine was itching for the end of the Indian football team’s campaign at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 in the UAE to resign and leave. Even as his players — the likes of Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who digged into not just their reserves but resolves as well to try and snatch a point from the match against Bahrain — were trying to compose themselves after the 0-1 added-time loss, their coach blurted out what sounded like a well-rehearsed statement. (Video - India vs Bahrain match analysis by Ishfaq Ahmed)
“I have been here for four years,” he said. “My objective from day one was to qualify for the Asian Cup and we have done that.
“I am exceptionally proud of the players for everything that they have given,” he added. “I thank the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Kushal Das, Praful Patel and Abhishek Yadav for the support that they have given me. I think my cycle is finished. I did what I was asked. It is time for me to move on.”
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Well prepared indeed he was with this, like actors with acceptance speeches at red carpeted awards galas; just that this came after a heartbreak. Then again, kudos coach. After all, a man at the helm should be prepared for any contingency, right? However, one can’t help but wonder if the coach had been similarly meticulous about his approach in matches — both against the UAE four days back, and the latest against Bahrain.
The calls Constantine made, the changes he brought in through the match in Sharjah on January 14 — India’s final group game — seemed more like whims of fancy, a blind rolling of the dice than well thought off strategies based on the tactical analysis of far superior opponents.
Constantine, in his infinite wisdom, decided to start Rowllin Borges against Bahrain — a defensive minded player in place of the attack-minded central midfielder Anirudh Thapa. Apparently, Constantine went for the move as Thapa had a back injury. And then, Thapa recovered from the injury and he was brought in later in the match, replacing a winger. Constantine works in mysterious ways!
Let’s start with Borges. He was slow on the ball, and clearly a notch below the level of the rest of the Indian players. The damage was done more by his lack of vision than his lack of legs, though. In the last 10 minutes, he took a shot from 30 yards out when the sense would have been to play it wide and ensure India held possession and wasted time. They didn’t and the law of averages eventually caught up... Bahrain scored.
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Borges’ inclusion into the playing XI was perhaps to implement a defensive, holding game against Bahrain. Something which never worked on the pitch. Thapa’s presence in the team worked as a link between the attack and the defence. Almost all of India’s counter attacking forays would come from his distribution, movement or ball handling. Without him, India’s forward line was isolated for large periods of the game feeding off scraps in the form of Gurpeet’s long punts forward. In fact, after Borges’ performance, one is left wondering why he, clearly below par, was there in the team in the first place.
Bringing in Jeje Lalpekhlua for Ashique Kuruniyan was another questionable move. Ashique’s speed and hold up play was keeping the Bahrain defence on their toes till the switch in the second half. Jeje, who was off the boil too, is not the same kind of player. With Jeje on, Bahrain relaxed at the back, and essentially worked with five forwards, constantly bombing the Indian goal.
It was clear what Constantine wanted from the Bahrain match — a draw. And, while playing for that, he forgot to understand that chasing the ball while defending is a taxing exertion for players that would drain them out both mentally and physically. In the last 10 minutes, the Indians could not just hold the ball, but showed signs that they could barely think of what to do when they had it, reflecting perhaps what was going on inside Constantine’s little grey cells.
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Against UAE earlier in the tournament, Constantine brought on Borges for the final phase, while the side was trailing 0-1. Instead of trying to get a goal, he chose to defend his cherished goal difference, which he must have thought would ensure their progression into the knockouts. Of course, in that game the players let him down a bit with bad finishing, but those are factors that any coach should take into account in a game situation, and then play according to the demand on the pitch, and not thinking ahead and beyond the match.
Constantine showed neither that presence of mind, nor stability when the match was on. Clearly, he seemed out of depth in a big tournament. Of course, one can argue that it is harsh to judge him based on two matches. Then again, football is a harsh world, isn’t it? And it is is more often than not a single match or two that creates or rewrites history. And, even if we had the strongest possible team for the challenge in the UAE, we never had the strongest man to lead them in the crunch matches.
Constantine has never had experience coaching sides in big tournaments such as a continental championships. Which brings the big question: why was he hired as coach in the first place? In 2015, when he took charge for a second stint with the Indian side, football here was striving to break out of the historic rut. With a highly flaunted and talked about new league — the Indian Super League — and money flowing in, India, or so it was advertised by the powers, was ready to push and become a powerhouse in Asia to start with.
Then the All India Football Federation (AIFF) hired Constantine, a man from the past. Constantine’s credentials and philosophy was questioned even during his first stint in the early 2000s, when Indian football was not yet, like they claim, on the cusp of a glorious future. He was removed after a three-year stint, and then, a decade later, hired back as the thinktank felt he was the right person to push Indian football ahead.
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Now, let’s take a look at some of the coaches of the national sides which featured at the Asian Cup this year. We had a Scudetto-winning coach guiding the UAE, another manager whose previous team featured in the World Cup quarterfinal, and many who have had illustrious stints and silverware under their belts. And we have India, led by someone whose claim to fame is leading the side to the top 100 in FIFA rankings (how we reached that ranking is quite a mathematical marvel), and whose priority was to “make the side qualify for the Asian Cup”. Those were his words from the resignation statement by the way.
Therein lies the problem with Indian football. On one side we have players who have shown an improvement in will as well as skill (the win against Thailand a point to be noted here), and on the other side, the AIFF hired a coach with limited experience and ideas, and a limited vision (goal being just the Asian Cup and not building a national side towards bigger things).
This generation of Indian footballers are supposed to be a bridge between the top-100 breaking India to a side that can genuinely challenge for a qualifying slot at FIFA World Cup. The hope now is the AIFF (or the powers that control Indian football), hire a coach with the right credentials, and the idea and vision to make best use of the current crop players with their limitations and strengths, and build for the future.
Then again, the Indian football powers are more keen in building the future of their pet league. The national team can wait. Let’s football. For now!
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