Stephen Constantine describes himself as a coach who doesn't sit on his hands when he notes that something is not right. He's stuck true to his word since returning as India's football coach: From taking on the sports ministry to allow him to choose from Indian-origin players, to handing debuts to 13 players and bringing wholesale changes to the technical staff. And he's done all this while facing the lows of being beaten by tiny island nation Guam after the highs of a fighting loss against Oman at home in the World Cup qualifiers.
Before that loss, India were ranked 141, which is 33 places above Guam. After the loss, India has dropped to 156, which is 10 places below Guam. It was, in essence, a sign of where Indian football is headed — not just because of the usual suspects — 'infrastructure and grassroots development', but because of a calendar that is completely different to the rest of the world.
For Constantine, who is back for a second stint as India's head coach, it is something that needs to change. If it doesn't, he believes "Indian football will die". Coming from India's head coach, this is not a message to be taken lightly.
"If we do not change, Indian football will die and that is clear. We are already at death’s door and that is why we are (ranked) 156. So if we do not align our calendar with that of the rest of the world, then what are we doing? What do we expect to do? We can have a hundred youth academies but they are not in competitive leagues. If they are not competing at the same time as the rest of the world...," he trails off, more in exasperation than for a loss of words.
"FIFA dates for the whole world are the same. We should be looking to start our calendar in August, so that players come from pre-season in July and leagues start in mid-August. And so by September, they will have had recovery, pre-season and four to five competitive league matches. That means they're in tip-top condition for international opponents. Our players start in October. So, in September we’re doing nothing and then we expect to qualify for the World Cup and Asian Cup. This is not logical. China changed, Japan changed, Iran changed, why can’t we?" he asks about a point that he has raised numerous times since taking over six months back.
Constantine met Firstpost for an exclusive interview at DSK Dream City in Pune — home of the Liverpool International Football Academy and the DSK Shivajians football club, where India are preparing for a World Cup qualifier against Iran on 8 September (to be played in Bengaluru).
Having worked as national coach of Nepal, Sudan, Malawi and Rwanda, he is no stranger to red tape. To lead these countries to some sort of football achievement includes difficult dealings with administrators, clubs, coaches, stakeholders and fans — and the 52-year-old is 'fine with that'. But he has a clear line set on who needs to be heard.
"We have people who love Indian football and want it to develop but are not willing to listen to those who know football. Loving the game is different to living the game. We need the Indian Super League (ISL), I-League, AIFF to sit down and think: What do we want? Everyone is saying we want the development of Indian football. So, sit down and listen. It’s not about egos, not about 'I have this and I have that'. It’s about what’s right for Indian football," he said.
Constantine is surprisingly candid during the interview. He states facts with a calm demeanor, and his answers range from four to five minutes — long, detailed opinions on what needs to be done, why, when, where and how. And it's not all negative stuff — he's not always complaining! Constantine makes sure credit is due where needed. He is impressed with the level of freedom he has in making some decisions.
"In these six months, I have to say that (AIFF President) Praful Patel and (General Secretary) Kushal Das have given me more or less everything that I want. The question is, is it enough? We need to make some difficult decisions and quickly. I keep saying that because if we are same next year, we are in big trouble. We need one league and I am prepared to help in any shape or form, but we need to implement. If we don’t, then I don’t see a future in Indian football."
It's the biggest warning that has come from someone so highly placed in Indian football. It's grim, it's dark and it's unsettling, especially so close to the Under-17 World Cup that India will be hosting in 2017. Constantine himself says, "I'm afraid."
"My only concern is that if we don’t sort our house out as soon as possible, then after the Under-17 World Cup is done and dusted, we won’t be in the limelight anymore. Since all of the attention will have gone and we will have stadiums and training pitches – will we maintain them? History tells us no – I would like to change that so I’m very optimistic but I’m afraid."
Indian football is stuck in that oxymoron of 'optimistic but afraid'. On one hand, the nation has the ISL, which was launched with much fanfare and hopes of triggering a football revolution. On the other, we have the I-League, where clubs are shutting down. The ISL famously became the fourth most-attended league in the world in terms of average attendance in its first season itself. Before the second season, it grabbed eyeballs again as franchisees almost spent a combined Rs 12.5 crore on Indian football players — a watershed moment in the history of the sport in India.
But it has also made Constantine's job harder. ISL teams have already kick-started their pre-season and those in the national camp in Pune currently have not been able to join their paymasters. These players will also miss part of the ISL due to World Cup qualifiers against Turkmenistan on 8 October and Oman on 13 October.
"If you look at our situation at the moment, we have two leagues and while I am not against the ISL, for me it’s the beginning or the start of the leagues which is an issue."
The AIFF recently scrapped the Fed Cup and while that has helped in clearing dates, the I-League, which is India's FIFA recognised premier football tournament, suffers under the shadow of its more glamorous AIFF offshoot.
Constantine's call for a more streamlined schedule stems from a need to have a 'conveyor belt' of players being churned out. He says it is impossible to choose a national team from two leagues. "The results show you that," he adds, not hiding the disappointment of India's performances under him so far.
One league will allow AIFF to market it better, police it better and organise it better. Moreoever, the ISL franchises, which are awash with cash, have made efforts to develop youth. Still, Constantine feels the foreigners' quota system in the I-League and their youth development efforts are not enough.
"The first time our players see a coach, let’s say even a great coach – they’re 13 to 14, and that’s 10 years behind behind pretty much every country in the world. We must change the calendar, we must reduce from four to two foreigners (in the I-League). If we’re thinking India, we must do these things. Palestine went to the Asian Cup for God’s sake. Why not us? Because we’re not doing the right things," Constantine says, his voice rising for the first time in a 40-minute long interview.
"We don’t have football in many states. We don’t have organised football even in states where the game is played. No youth leagues either. In Germany and Spain they went to districts and said U-13, U-15 and U-17 leagues — you will play this system. Why? Because we are paying for it, organising the league and controlling the coaches. Did anybody have a choice? No. But we can’t do it because we don’t control what happens in the states," Constantine said.
Even though the Englishman sounds frustrated at times, he is back to his committed best during training. He sets his teams up for a 60-minute match as the players try and return to full fitness. Constantine perches himself on the sidelines, hardly giving any instructions. He doesn't touch the ball throughout the session, just watching and plotting.
On the pitch, Constantine still prefers setting his teams out in attacking formations. "I like them to press opponents and put them on the back foot. I'd rather we ask the questions than be asked," he says of his tactical approach.
Off it, he will go back to plotting as soon as the session is over. But plot as much as he may, he admits that it's all worthless if it's not put into practice.
"We could be sitting here 10 years later and thinking, 'You know, what are we doing now?'. We have three leagues or one league for only five months. You need vision, but more than that, implementation. We have to go back to square one and think, 'This is where we are, what do we want to do and how do we get there?' Let’s all think Indian football, not my agenda or your agenda, only Indian football. Until we do that, we will be where we are."
The writer tweets @TheFalseNo9
Published Date: Aug 27, 2015 10:03 AM | Updated Date: Aug 27, 2015 10:05 AM