By Andrew Warshaw
January 5 – He may be little known in his home country, yet he is the man largely credited with waking one of Asian football’s sleeping giants from its seemingly interminable slumber.
To suggest that Stephan Constantine, the only English coach at the Asian Cup, has put Indian football on the map is something of an understatement in a nation obsessed by cricket.
When India kick off their campaign against Thailand on Sunday, they will be making only their second appearance in the competition for 35 years.
Add to that a world ranking of 97 compared with 173 when Constantine began his second spell in charge four years ago and you get some idea of the impact he has made.
So how has he done it?
“Basically by being as single bloody minded as possible,” says Constantine who is as expressive as he is emotional and is not averse to throwing the odd colourful word into an interview. “There was complete complacency verging on apathy when I arrived and we had to change the entire mentality of the players.”
As well as sending a string of international footballing nations surging up the world rankings (when in charge of Rwanda he improved their ranking from 155 to 64 and has also coached Sudan, Malawi and Nepal plus several sides in his father’s native Cyprus), Constantine has helped train and educate coaches worldwide as a FIFA instructor yet for some reason has never been able to land a top job in the UK.
He’s even written a book about being football’s most widely travelled manager but one who remains largely unknown in England despite his exploits abroad.
“I have no other interests than football and have a CV as good as anyone’s,” says Constantine whose main English experience has been confined to a brief spell as Millwall’s first-team coach 13 years ago despite a raft of qualifications.
“I must have applied to almost all the professional clubs in England outside the Premier League over the years but because I’m not known, I’ve not got the jobs.”
“I just don’t understand why so many coaches who have done the rounds in England and keep failing continue to get employed. Maybe it’s because chairman are afraid and adopt a ‘better the devil you know’ attitude.”
For all his hopes about making his name in England, even at the age of 56, Constantine is relishing the challenge of giving cricket-mad India a strong footballing profile over the next few weeks in the United Arab Emirates. In a way he already has done so, given where India were when he took over the second time.
“When you consider that at one stage last year we had gone 14 games unbeaten, that’s pretty hard to comprehend since when I arrived we hadn’t won a competitive game away from home in 11 years. In qualifying for the Asian Cup we beat Myanmar 1-0 away and that hadn’t happened for 61 years.
“Half of our Asian Cup squad is under 23, the second youngest in the tournament after Vietnam. A lot of the players weren’t even at clubs when I found them but I didn’t mind how old they were or where they came from if they had the right attitude.”
Just how tough a challenge it has been, says Constantine, is defined by the fact that India is almost a Continent in itself. “There are hundreds of different languages and customs. Going from one state to the next is sometimes like going to a different country.
“But the passion for football is incredible. When we played Japan in a World Cup qualifier having already been eliminated, we still had 90,000-plus fans in the stadium. The interest in football has always been there and the Indian Super League is doing a great job in generating interest. It’s just that cricket is traditionally a well-oiled machine that is superbly marketed.”
Part of the secret of Constantine’s success lies in an holistic approach with the emphasis on sports science and nutrition. He may be accused of self-confidence verging on arrogance but there is no doubting his belief in his techniques and attention to detail. “We haven’t had a muscle injury for four years. We pay huge attention to everything the players do on and off the pitch.”
“What I’ve done with India is a far bigger achievement than, say, what Iceland did getting to the World Cup. Why? Because almost all Iceland’s players are in foreign leagues. India’s league is one of the weakest in Asia. On a personal level, this is up there with my greatest achievements.”
“We are massive underdogs and not many people believed we would qualify. But we have done it in style and now we are there we want to show everyone in Asia that we deserve to be.
“Getting out of the group stage will be extremely hard but I think we can do it. There’s no pressure on us because we have done everything asked of us already, and more. But there’s no point in qualifying, then losing three games and going home. This is our time to make a name for ourselves.”
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