By Andrew Warshaw
January 15 – It was nowhere in the script. Yet in a matter of days, Stephen Constantine, the only English coach at the Asian Cup, went from hero to zero, resigning as India’s head coach after they were knocked out following a 1-0 defeat by Bahrain.
What should have been a routine qualification for their first ever progression to the knockout stages since winning the event in 1964 when it was a largely forgettable four-nation tournament, compared with today’s glittering 24-nation competition, turned into a disaster for Constantine who had put himself very much in the coaching shop window.
The Blue Tigers’ shock exit at the hands of unheralded Bahrain could hardly have been more heartbreaking. All they needed was a draw at the Sharjah Stadium, only for Jamal Rashed to smash a 91st-minute penalty into the net and sent India on their way home.
“I’ve been here for four years and my objective from day one was to qualify for the Asian Cup and I’ve done that,” said the ebullient but clearly dejected Constantine who tried his best to put on the bravest of faces. “We’ve broken a few records and I’m exceptionally proud of the players and everything they’ve given.”
“To go out in the 90th minute (sic) with a penalty… it’s really tough. The boys gave everything, I don’t think we created as much as we normally do. The boys are sick as you can imagine and I am disappointed for them. They gave everything they could in the last few games.”
“We didn’t intentionally set up for a draw … but we started defending deeper and deeper and deeper and in the end, we got punished. I did what I was asked to and a little bit more and after four years, I think it’s time to leave,” the Anglo-Cypriot added.
“It’s my wife’s birthday today and I haven’t been back to my house in six years. I’ve only seen my three daughters every three or four months and the time has come for me to move on.
Maybe so but in his second stint as India manager after having been at the helm between 2002 and 2005, all Indian fans will rue a lost opportunity that may n0t come around again too quickly.
Certainly under the tutelage of Constantine, India made huge strides, breaking into the top-100 FIFA world rankings last year – a landmark achievement – and reaching for the Asian Cup finals for only the second time in 35 years .
But having started the tournament with such panache and optimism by thrashing Thailand and then getting nothing from a game against the host nation they totally dominated, they exited with a sense of frustration verging on capitulation as, remarkably, they finished bottom of their group, with Bahrain leapfrogging them into third place.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) confirmed on its Twitter account that Constantine had stepped down.
“We haven’t received any official communication from him yet but we accept his decision & thank him for his contribution to #Indianfootball,” AIFF general secretary Kushal Das was quoted as saying.
Going into the tournament, Constantine, who has sent a string of international footballing minnows surging up the world rankings and helped train coaches worldwide as a FIFA instructor, hoped his exploits might finally be recognised back home.
He’s even written a book about being football’s most peripatetic coach but one who remains largely unknown in homeland despite his exploits abroad.
“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 hardly had a sniff,” he told Insideworldfootball before India’s first game. “But I won’t give up. After all, (former England manager) Roy Hodgson made his name overseas until he finally got his breakthrough.”
One man who did recognise his talents was Arsene Wenger, the iconic former Arsenal manager who Constantine met a few years ago whilst doing his Pro License.
“He told me that if I’d done in Europe what I’d managed in Asia, I’d be coaching in the Champions League. The fact is 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.”
Where he goes now is anyone’s guess but for the moment it’s all about what might have been.
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