Stephen Constantine’s second stint at the helm of the Indian national football team came to an end with a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Bahrain, which saw the Blue Tigers crash out of the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
The Englishman’s reign ended in questions much like his first run-out in the country had, and it led to furious debate on social media, on whether he completed the objectives that had been handed to him.
There is no easy way to gauge Constantine’s performance due to the relative lack of success in the years preceding him. India were languishing at the 173rd position in world ranking when he assumed charge and he left the team in 97th. Rankings are hardly the most accurate of measures, yet India had embarked on a 12-match winning run under him.
Infighting and domestic problems
The improvement in rankings, however, fails to completely erase the memory of a disastrous World Cup qualification campaign.
A loss to Guam was surely the nadir of Indian football but the results came with caveats and hurdles, lots of them. In a well-publicised feud, the Englishman clashed with the Indian Super League and their officials, including Delhi Dynamos coach Roberto Carlos, for not releasing his players on time.
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Constantine didn’t shy away from voicing his thoughts in public or in his book, a trait that seems to be increasingly frowned upon in Indian football. With the ISL growing in prominence, surely these statements wouldn’t sit well with the authorities.
He was hardly the first foreign coach to criticise elements of Indian football. Bob Houghton, who was in charge prior to Constantine’s predecessor Wim Koevermans said, “After three years of being here, I don’t think the game has moved forward very quickly. We don’t see the whole picture, not just the AIFF but the general footballing body, about the standard we need to achieve.”
Yet, the pressure from within the federation came after the head coach made a statement at a New Delhi training camp where he questioned the hagiographic coverage of the under-17 World Cup team.
With increasing pressure to make the event look like a resounding success for the state of Indian football, attacking the AIFF’s pet project was always going to earn Constantine the ire of those in charge. He survived a player revolt, but by the end of his stint, it looked unlikely that he would continue in his position beyond the Asian Cup.
Three sticking points
Constantine came under fire for his team selections as he largely stuck by the players who had helped him qualify for the Asian Cup. The Englishman picked those who fit his system, but their league form, from time to time, tended to betray his selections.
In the larger context, a 18-game league and a form guide of three to four matches directing selection has often resulted in false positives for the national team. Constantine, in his second stint, did moan about a lack of attackers and a lack of long-term systems in place. He had also once stated that players needed to do ‘five times the work they put in for an ISL game to match up to national team level’.
He was also attacked for his style and for lacking a philosophy, but the players’ intensity dropping in the last game against Bahrain, pointed to the need for a longer league. Much was made of the fitness improvements under Constantine, but they crumbled like a pack of cards when tasked with playing their third match in nine days, standard tournament regulations across the world.
A third point against his reign was one of tactics. There were times, as in their final Asian Cup group stage game, where those concerns were legitimate. Tactical acumen, however, is a trait acquired by players from both coaches and their own experience.
A systematic inculcation of high-pressure points and the learning through an extensive playing career, leading up to the national team, is missing. The players, poor conditioning as it has been, cannot be goaded by any coach, even by the likes of Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho, into turning them world-beaters overnight without the missing cognition from the formative years.
No quick fixes
The proponents of the quick fix will point towards coaches, who they say, will perfect India’s style shown in the second half against Thailand and in patches against the UAE. Yet, whether the onus of converting those moments into three whole games on the biggest stages, rests with the incoming head coaches, is disputable.
While handing him an extension, the AIFF had mentioned that he had met his objective of qualifying for the Asian Cup. The realistic expectation is that the coach following Constantine will also be assigned the same goal.
Not taking anything away from the 4-1 win over Puerto Rico or the 6-1 win over Laos, the national team’s supposed improvements rest upon a 0-0 draw against China and a 4-1 win over Thailand, dangerously thin grounds for proclamations of progress.
His departure was as sudden as that of the team’s form at the Asian Cup, and his second Indian sojourn will have a mixed reception when spoken about. In Indian football, it could hardly be otherwise.