Indian football was still in celebratory mode after a rare win over a higher-ranked team in Puerto Rico when news streamed in that coach Stephen Constantine might not get a contract extension.
The Blue Tigers dished out one of their most efficient performance in recent memory during the 4-1 rout of the Puerto Ricans on 3 September in Mumbai. India's win over the Caribbean nation was their ninth from the last eleven games – a sort of run that points to an upturn in the fortunes of the side.
But reports surfaced on Thursday that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) may not be too keen to extend Constantine's contract. The urgency of the situation is highlighted further because his contract runs out in February, a month before the Asian Cup qualifiers begin.
According to a report in Hindustan Times, some members of the AIFF technical committee are bemused by Constantine's constant chopping and changing of the side and deem it to be unnecessary.
India finished at the bottom of their World Cup qualifying group despite being seeded third in the same. Twin defeats to Turkmenistan and a loss to lowly Guam not just hampered India's Fifa ranking, but also meant that the Blue Tigers face a longer and a tougher route to qualify for the Asian Cup.
However, India's performances since the Saff Cup in December 2015 – which India won – have been improving and Constantine has managed to select a much more settled starting eleven. He has also stuck to a group of young players that he feels can take India forward in the future.
"In my tenure 30 players have made their international debuts. We now have a pool of players where I have a problem of picking the left back, right back or the stoppers. That is a good thing, to have that competition," the Englishman had said at the post-match press conference after the Puerto Rico game.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who captained the Indian side against Puerto Rico suggested that a healthy competition for places ensures that the players in the starting line-up don't take their place for granted and maintain a level of performance.
"Under Constantine, no one has a guaranteed place. There is back-up for every playing position and we all know we cannot take our position for granted," Sandhu told IANS in a telephonic interview.
Citing the example of Jackichand Singh, who excelled on the right channel of India's attacking third in a 4-3-3 formation, Sandhu added: "He was not a regular not long ago. Now whenever he is given a chance he gives his all.
"That is the case with all of us. We are always on our toes. One mistake and we know we could be relegated to the bench," he added.
Constantine has always talked up the need for a long-term plan for Indian football and an average age of around 25 for the Indian team suggests, the coach has started to implement his plan. He feels the current group of players can serve the Indian team for the next 6-7 years.
Even though many of the recent positive results have come against weaker opposition, the Indian team is taking shape for next year's qualifiers. The players have developed an understanding with the coach and are slowly starting to play his way.
So if Constantine is replaced just a month before the Asian Cup qualifiers, it will serve as a huge setback in preparations for the tournament. His replacement will need time to assess the squad and impose his style of play on the players. This may very well come at a cost of an appearance in the 2019 Asian Cup as the squad may struggle to incorporate the changes under new management, so close to such a big tournament.
According to the Hindustan Times report, the AIFF is looking at an I-League winning coach. It takes little to connect the dots and understand that the national football body is looking at former Bengaluru FC coach, Ashley Westwood to take over from Constantine.
Westwood would be a great choice as a manager for the national team considering what he achieved at Bengaluru FC. His style of promoting young players is also in synchronisation with Constantine. But the big question remains whether he will be able to take charge straight away and manage to produce the results.
Every manager is different in his own ways and both the manager and the players need time to adjust. There could be a possibility that Westwood would prefer a different set of players than Constantine and thus everything would have to begin from the scratch. That would mean India would have wasted the little yet significant amount of good work done under Constantine and also perhaps lose out on a place in the 2019 Asian Cup.
Another battle which Constantine has been fighting was against the bureaucracy and politics in Indian football. The 53-year-old has been vocal about his displeasure on various issues from the cancellation of the training camp ahead of the second season of the Indian Super League, to the disallowance of including Indian players of foreign origin in the Indian football team. His constant opposing statements may also be a reason as to why the AIFF may look elsewhere.
The failure to send the Indian team on a tour of the USA also didn't go down too well with the current Indian coach as he called the unofficial friendly arranged in place of the USA tour as 'having something than not do anything' at the recent press conference ahead of the Puerto Rico game.
Moreover, India's domestic football structure pretty much lies in tatters at the moment with huge question marks about the future of the I-League and talks of a unified league not making any headway. Although, he felt that talks of the unified league were encouraging signs for Indian football, Constantine didn't hesitate in revealing the disparity in the fitness levels of players while playing in their respective clubs as compared to what's required at the international level.
Sunil Chhetri who's among the senior-most players in the Indian side also shed light on the gulf between the training methods and fitness regimes at certain clubs in India and that required at the national team camp.
"I think there will be no disparity if all the clubs have the knowledge which the national team has or know how the national team is dealt. Not just the coaching, but the nutrition, the food, the sleep, everything. If we (national team) and more clubs are in synchronisation, it will be great. We are getting there, but it's something that we are lacking at the moment," Chhetri had said at the press conference before the Puerto Rico game.
Westwood, who if reports are to be believed is the likely candidate to take over the job if Constantine's contract is not renewed, was a part of one of the most professional setups in Indian football till date. Constantine's complaints and India's low Fifa rankings for decades suggest that the Indian football team is anything but a bed of roses.
Moreover, if Westwood does take over, it would be interesting to witness how he deals with all these issues without hampering the growth of the national team. The former Manchester United youth academy player has a history of losing his cool and was also alleged of racism towards an East Bengal official, although there are little doubts over his ability as a coach.
It is his availability that's tempting AIFF to perhaps jump the gun. But they must realise that football development is a process and it can't be completed overnight. While Westwood remains a great managerial candidate for the Indian football team, the timing might not be the best for Indian football to incorporate the change.
No one can guarantee success, neither Constantine nor Westwood. But the sensible move right now would be to continue the process under Constantine which is just beginning to show some promise.
First Published On : Sep 8, 2016 17:30 IST