India under Stephen Constantine 2015-19: How much has the country really improved?
In the end, it happened all of a sudden. But unfortunately, the words were written on the wall, much before the final whistle has been blown.
The last group match in AFC Asian Cup against Bahrain witnessed everything – the over-excessive defending, no plan B, no ball possession, last-minute penalty and finally the resignation of the coach.
India had qualified for the continental event after a gap of eight years. The qualification itself was an incredible achievement for the Blue Tigers, given the fact that they have only qualified for the Asian Cup for four out of 17 editions.
Some may question that the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams may have allowed India an easy path. But most of the continental tournaments are now an affair of 24 teams, including the most popular European Championships. And the credit for the qualification goes to Stephen Constantine also.
Improvement in rankings
When the British coach took over from Wim Koevermans for his second term with this country, Indian were reeling at 173 in the rankings. The Indian Super League had just completed its first edition and more than the Indian footballers, the eyeballs were solely on foreign big names, such as Alessandro Del Piero, Marco Materazzi and Alessandro Nesta.
The first and foremost task of the British coach was to unite the dressing room and instil confidence amongst them. By virtue of playing in ISL, the Indian players already had the experience of how the game is played at international level. It was time to deliver the same wearing the national colours.
The task was not so simple. Constantine’s first challenge was getting a respectable result in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. India, pitted with superpowers Iran alongside Guam, Oman and Turkmenistan, failed to earn more than one win in the group and finished last.
By then, the players had gained more experience by playing one more ISL. Their immediate task was to qualify for the Asian Cup. This time they didn’t disappoint. The performance reflected in their ranking as India entered the top 100 within two years of Constantine’s reign.
Gave chance to youngsters
After taking over as the coach, Constantine realised that if the country's football had to make progress, they had to depend on young blood. The British coach started to scout young footballers from across the country.
He closely watched ISL and I-League games and started inviting young footballers in the national camp. More than 40 footballers have made their national team debut under the Constantine. Not all of them were able to retain their places, but it also helped to unearth some really talented players.
For long, India depended on the experienced players in the bigger stages. Constantine has changed the mood and the likes of Ashique Kuruniyan, Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Halicharan Narzary became household names.
Quite surprisingly, he didn’t follow his own method in the recent times. He kept ignoring the performances of the players and stuck to his tried and tested team. As a result, the likes of Rahul Bheke, Michael Soosairaj, Joby Justin and Lallianzuala Chhangte were left out of the squad, who would have given him more options in the Asian Cup.
Dogged old school mentality
Constantine is a man of the old school. He doesn’t like to tinker his game-plan according to the team or situation. He believes in the old defensive strategy – try not to concede and depend on the counter-attack.
Surely, not many coaches would go for such a tactic in the modern era, when they have these young players, who, on their day, can tear any opponent apart. The game against Bahrain was irritating to watch sometimes. After all, who wants to see Sunil Chhetri or Udanta Singh coming down and helping the defence!
No matter how much you criticise him, Constantine would never break down. One by one, he will take out everything to counter your allegations. Ultimately, you would give up, cursing your own curiosity.
He reminds us of some Jose Mourinho and his famous ‘park the bus’ strategy. We witnessed the performance of Manchester United under him and also how it transformed under a new coach.
Rotating the captaincy has not worked
Almost every kid learning their tricks of the trade idolises Sunil Chhetri. They are growing up watching him play. They are trying to copy him on the field. The true legend of the country carries all the qualities to be a leader of the team.
But Constantine doesn’t think so. He likes to rotate the captaincy, making everyone the leader of the team. So when Pronay Halder wore the captain’s armband against Bahrain, he was ninth player to do so under Constantine.
While wearing the captain’s armband gives you confidence, it can affect your performance also. Not all the player carries the quality of leading a team and it would only be an extra burden for them.
Constantine has given so much to the country in the past four years. India have written and re-written history. He could’ve given something more if he had been wise in his decisions. But we should thank him for what he has done over the years.
It’s true that this is not the same Indian team than it was four years ago. Now, India have definitely put themselves on the Asian footballing map. They are not just holoday-goers in continental tournaments anymore.
Constantine may have gone, but he left a long-lasting legacy.