Ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier between India and Guam, Indian coach Stephen Constantine and players Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sunil Chhetri were present at the pre-game press conference at the Kanteerva Stadium in Bangalore. Here are a few excerpts.
On the importance of the game
Constantine: Happy Diwali to everybody! I think it's a game we have to win. It's very important to us. We had said from the very beginning of the qualifiers that we will try to win our home games. And tomorrow is another opportunity to do that.
Constantine: They might have been unknown to you, they were not unknown to me. In the first press conference in Delhi, I said that this is not an easy group. We should not underestimate Guam or Turkmenistan or any other teams. Guam have used the FIFA rule to the fullest effect. They have players who are playing in the United States.
I knew this before the qualifiers were drawn. People make the mistake of saying, ‘Oh, they have a population of 190,000,’ but they’re not drawing from the population of 190,000. They are drawing players from wherever they can. This is quite within their rights, and they are using it to their full advantage.
Chhetri: First of all, I don’t think we turned up as we should have at Guam (when India lost 2-1). To be very honest, we didn’t play well. There were reasons like ‘it was so far, the turf, it was windy’, but the first reason why we lost at Guam was because we didn’t play well. And I have no qualms accepting that.
Tomorrow it’s going to be a different game, at home. The last thing we want to do is not give whatever we have. I can’t sit here and tell you we’re going to win tomorrow and by this margin. But one thing is for sure; we’re going to give everything we have and we definitely have a chance tomorrow to win the game which sadly we couldn’t do in Guam.
On India losing 5 qualifiers and chances of qualifying for the Asian Cup
Constantine: Last time India were in any qualifier was more than eight years ago. So the fact that we qualified this time around, to go into the qualifiers, that itself was an achievement given the past history. How do we expect after 8 years of not playing anybody of any great pedigree suddenly expect to qalify for the Asian Cup. You don’t make a team in one day, or one month or one year.
While I would like to qualify for the Asian Cup, and I think we all do, what have we done to give ourselves the opportunity to do that. We qualified; we beat Nepal and got into the qualifiers, we lost five games, three of them 2-1. I think in a couple of those games we could have taken a point. We have played some games where we have not been at our best.
But we have used 16 new players who are playing international games for the first time, second or third time. You must take all of these things into consideration when you say how good or bad we have done in the past. And the answer is ‘not very good’. What has changed? There’s a great many variables that have to be factored – preparation, time, the national calendar and so on.
I’m not trying to sit here and make excuses, those are the facts. So if we win tomorrow, we give ourselves a chance to get into the playoffs and that’s what we’ll try to do.
On why Indian players struggle on the international stage
Chhetri: There are 16 new players (in this squad). For instance, if you see Jackichand [Singh] who played in the I-League last year, he’s a different player. But the moment he knows he is playing his first international game, it’s a different ball-game altogether when you play against Oman or Iran. We’re in a transition period with 16 new players and it was unfortunate that the most important tournament came at the same time. Ideally you want a set team who have played fort he last five years to play at a big tournament.
With 16 new players, you need a little more time for players to adjust and start playing well. One of our best players here is Gurpreet Singh and he has played just 3-4 games. The most experienced player after me and [Subrata] Pal is probably Robin who has played just 20 games. So it’s going to take a little more time for everyone to start playing as a team.
On whether Constantine is closer to having a set playing XI or whether he will experiment again
Constantine: I pick players based on merit and what they can do for us. When you are rebuilding a national team, given the past five, six, seven years, you are going to get inconsistencies. Sunil talked about the game in Guam where we didn’t play as well as we did here against Oman. After the Oman game, people said, ‘Congratulations, coach. Great game.’ I said, ‘We lost!’. But everybody was happy with the work-rate. We tried to play football, we did some good and bad things.
But that’s football. You can’t guarantee consistency after two to five games. Club players train twice a day and coaches are worried if they will gel. It’s much harder with the national team especially because we don’t get the players for any length of time. The FIFA calendar dates are there, but I don't think they suit Asian or African players because the national coach needs more time to help develop and gel them.
Any message for the fans in Bengaluru?
Gurpreet: What I’ve seen is the Bangalore fans have a great role to play to support us and they are the best fans I’ve seen in India in terms of chanting or supporting (us) whenever we go through a bad phase in the match. It’s important to have the fans around us, especially the Bengaluru fans.
Chhetri: (They’re the) best in the country. I just hope they come tomorrow and support us.