As the linesman raised his flag to signal for offside, Arsenal’s last chance to snag an easy three points against newly-promoted Middlesbrough at the Emirates dissipated. In Cyprus, two Arsenal fans watching the game on television, were deflated after jumping off the couch to celebrate what looked like a legitimate Mesut Ozil goal ruled out.
A journalist with the British Broadcasting Corporation, Owen Amos, was in town to co-write the story of the other man, known as a strict disciplinarian and a hard taskmaster to the outside world, and this was a side of the man barely known to the viewers who had grown so accustomed to seeing the 54-year-old in a tie and suit, shouting out orders at his players from the touchline.
But as Stephen Constantine will tell you himself, there is no other side. “What you see is what you get. I am disciplined and I am a stickler for values. This is how I am at work and with my daughters at home.”
Born in England into an Anglo-Cypriot family, Constantine played for clubs in the US before being involved in coaching roles across four continents. Currently in the midst of his second stint in India, Constantine has managed the Indian team for a cumulative period of six years and counting.
This is Constantine as you’ve never known him before, as he describes his incredible footballing journey, his personal life outside of the game and his view of the game in a bare-it-all conversation with The Field.
“In the beginning, I was just trying to play. I didn’t think about the coaching aspect. I started coaching in the States when I was 19,” said Constantine, who was rejected by Chelsea despite scoring a hat-trick in a trial match at 15.
A complete tear of the Anterior Cruciate Ligament would eventually end the young midfielder’s career early. But the US Federation D and C badges that he had earned would hold him in good stead. Constantine started coaching in the US circuit before moving to Cyprus after the Major League Soccer’s predecessor, the North American Soccer League, shut down in 1984.
“When I started, it gave me a different feeling,” he said. “When you share something, it gives you such a buzz.” Constantine started his coaching career with a fourth-division side in Cyprus and other similar assignments in the island country before taking charge of the Nepalese national football team.
The Englishman has had stints at Rwanda, Malawi, Sudan and a first-team coach’s role at Millwall, but a substantial role in his home country has evaded him. How does Constantine choose to respond to this? “English football is pretty insular, it’s closed,” he said. “They don’t want to promote other coaches who look at things another way. For them, your face has to fit for you to be a part of the system.”
Despite having a wealth of experience, Constantine’s resume was rejected by the English FA for the Under-21 national side in 2007, even though he had demanded half the wages of the other candidate, Stuart Pearce, who ultimately ended up getting the job.
The process of writing his autobiography, From Delhi to the Den, has been as tough as his career itself. Originally planned in 2011 and shelved in 2012, the project was revived in 2015. Co-author Amos said, “You’d think it’d be easy to get a publisher for Stephen’s book, but no. We tried 10 different publishers who rejected us before landing with the 11th. That’s because he’s not a face, not Alan Shearer, David Beckham or Joey Barton.
In his own words, Constantine takes up “jobs that nobody else wants to take up”. During his time in Africa, he has seen strife, bloodshed and human misery. “It affects me as a human being when I see people dying on the streets, dying; when we travel by team bus in India and I see humans lying on the roads. But you can’t help everybody. Sometimes, you just have to deal with the job at hand.”
Amos describes how he met the Indian head coach first. “I was in charge of a amateur team which was touring Nepal,” he said. “I knew Stephen had managed Nepal. I emailed him when I was an unknown 25-year old guy in 2011. He replied helping me with some contacts and tips. He has a tough exterior and he gets hundreds of mails from fans and aspiring coaches, but knowing him, he will always help you.”
One of his first jobs as Indian head coach was to ensure they got the basic facilities such as accommodation and kits. When asked about the kits when he started coaching India, he laughed and said, “Shiv-Naresh!” Constantine himself wrote to a dozen kit-makers, of which only Adidas was willing to sponsor kits, and later Nike took over, an association they maintain till this date.
Does Stephen share a similar relationship with his players?
“I hammered them on a daily basis. With me, these phrases – aaram se (with ease), theek hai (it’s all right), koi baat nahi (no worries) – they don’t fly at all,” said Constantine, referring to the Under-23 team that competed in the AFC Under-23 qualifying tournament in Qatar recently.
“You have to be a father, friend and a taskmaster with them. Find out what motivates them and take them to the next level. No two players are the same,” he said, when prodded about his approach to man management. “There were moments with the team that you don’t know about. I took them to the mall [in Qatar] and there was also a small dance in the dressing room.”
Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri are two players that Constantine has high regard for.
“They are leaders on and off the pitch. They lead by example and practise what they preach. They absolutely hate losing. Sunil has been fantastic in this stint and I hope he has a few more years to give to Indian football.”
He shares a warm relationship with former players too as he has tried bringing some of them back into the national fold. While Shanmugham Venkatesh became his assistant, the former Indian striker Abhishek Yadav became his Director of Scouting, a task that Constantine takes very seriously.
“When I first arrived, we had some 20-odd players for the Under-19 squad,” said Constantine. “Today, we have some 300 players lining up for selections in Dubai. Qatar has more than 50,000 Indian people. Surely there must be somebody here who can play football.”
The coach compares football players to diamonds. “You have to cut them, shape them, set them, polish it and sell it. The process of finding players is similar. We don’t look enough because of our budget. Hence, we started this scouting network.”
This has led to the identification and debuts of 32 players in the previous 30 months. “In our last game against Kyrgyzstan, seven out of 11 players were from this batch of 32. The national team is constantly changing, evolving.”
A transformed setup
When he took charge of India for his second stint, he saw that things had changed. “I jumped at the chance but I missed my old leaders – Bhutia, IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri. Things had completely changed. Today, we have guys like Chhetri, Gurpreet and Borges who can lead. It takes time for a leader to develop.”
So why did he decide to take up the India job for a second time? “It is always a huge honour to lead a national side. Indian football had transformed. The ISL had completed it’s first years and there’s always been that publicity hoo-haa, but there are certain concepts, reasons why it had to be set up.”
His vision for the national team is quite clear. “We can’t emulate Europe just yet. We have to look at the next rung of Asia first. Indonesia, Thailand, they’re a tiny fraction above us. We must catch them first before moving on to the big guns in Asia – Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. We have to qualify for Asian Cups at all levels, be it Under-23’s or the seniors.”
Does the job ever get easier?
“You’re always away from your family, travelling all the time. It’s extremely difficult to get used to,” said Constantine.
The 54-year-old is happier at home as he is reunited with his family for a brief time before heading to the Champions Cup in Chennai scheduled for late August. “My three girls are here. I can’t tell you how happy I am. The first thing I did is give them a copy of my book,” he said, laughing.
Arsenal is a ritual for the family, a club that Constantine first fell in love with when they won the league title on the last day against Tottenham in 1971 with the coach, then eight years of age in attendance at Highbury.
He doesn’t take lightly to the criticism of Arsene Wenger. “People have short memories of what he’s done for this club. He’s won them trophies for the last 20 exceptional years and some of the criticism that has been levelled at him is plain disgraceful. It’s the hardest league in the world. When he’s ready to go, he’ll go. Would these people rather have been Crystal Palace or West Ham fans?”
So, is Arsenal the dream job? “I don’t know what the future holds for me. Right now, I am happy where I am and I hope that I have a few years left in me. Maybe one day, I’ll get to manage at the World Cup.”