The former national team head coach reflected on the Blue Tigers’ performance in the continental competition.
Securing qualification to the AFC Asian Cup 2019 was a significant achievement for Stephen Constantine in his second spell at the helm of the Indian national team. The Englishman had taken charge of the squad in March 2015, at a time when the Blue Tigers were languishing very low in the FIFA rankings. The progress made under Constantine was gradual, with a few hiccups, but to manage to play in the group stages of the most prominent tournament in Asia was a laudable feat in itself.
In his appearance on Khel Now’s Beyond The Scores podcast, the former head coach talked at length about the qualifying campaign, pre-tournament preparations and the three group stage encounters in the competition. “Look, the first game (in the qualifying campaign) was away to Myanmar. We hadn’t defeated them for over 60 years in their backyard. I felt that in that group, Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan will give us problems. As long as we didn’t underestimate them, I felt that we will beat Macau. Winning the way we did in Myanmar, which was so hostile, but we were ready. We were prepared. The boys were fit. They worked their socks off from the first minute to the last,” Constantine recalled.
He explained that the approach that his team adopted will always present opportunities, irrespective of the several detractors that the style of play invites. The 57-year-old also mentioned that he didn’t really care about the draw for the group stages of the Asian Cup. He believed that all teams would pose an equally difficult challenge at that level and hence refrained from pondering much on the issue.
However, he did have quite a revelation to make about the hindrances that the side faced during their pre-tournament preparations. “I remember sitting down with the ISL and asking them to give me the month of December, to give me three weeks before we needed to be in the UAE. They couldn’t give me that,” Stephen Constantine disclosed. He further continued, “So, I didn’t have three weeks, I had 10 days. In that time, we went to Jordan, a strong team. That trip was an absolute nightmare; there were some issues with the flights. We had to travel in two groups and half of the team was stuck in Kuwait.”
“They had floods, so no flight was leaving Kuwait. We had asked to cancel the game. I had 13 players, no strikers and missed one of the midfield players. We had to play that game. The other players came on the day of the game, after spending 48 hours on a floor in Kuwait. There was no way I was going to play those players and we lost the game 2-1,” the coach shed light on the circumstances. Stephen Constantine believed, “Had I got the month of December, I would have had time to make a few more games. But, it didn’t affect us in any way as the players were fit as they were playing in the ISL.”
The Blue Tigers had started off their run in the tournament on an assertive note, as they secured a 1-4 victory over Thailand in their very first group stage encounter. Sunil Chhetri bagged a brace, while the duo of Anirudh Thapa and Jeje Lalpekhlua netted one each to cap off a resounding triumph for Constantine’s team. “I know for a fact on the basis of numbers that we were probably one of the fittest teams at the Asian Cup. We may not have the technical ability that some of the teams had, but there was not a team in the Asian Cup that would outwork us.”
The ex-Millwall manager added, “That game was a fantastic moment for us, for the fans, for the country. We were clinical, 1-4 at the international level is not an everyday occurrence. So, I am extremely proud of that performance and obviously we were one foot in the last 16.” However, the Indian campaign derailed from thereon, as they suffered an unfortunate 2-0 drubbing from the United Arab Emirates in the second game of the group stages. Constantine rued the lack of clinical finishing for the result. “We created enough chances to win that game two times over,” the widely-traveled tactician remarked.
He continued, “We hit the crossbar twice. Their coach Alberto Zaccheroni came up to me after the game and said that we didn’t deserve to lose the game. But, that’s football and that’s what I said to the boys in the changing room. This is the difference between the top level and the not top level. We could have won 5-0. Zaccheroni would have been on the next flight back to Italy.” Constantine further added, “We didn’t take our chances. We played well, outran them, outfought them. But, we made one mistake just before half-time. Of course, when you are trying to catch the game, you are a little bit less defensive. They scored the second goal late too. This is the difference between the good teams and the great teams.”
“Did we deserve to win the game? Yes, absolutely. Did we deserve to draw? Zaccheroni would have been smiling with a draw. We lost,” he almost bemoaned.
However, Stephen Constantine is a smart man. Before the host could proceed to the next question, he preempted the query and swiftly stated, “Before you ask me the last question, I know what the last question is. We did not at anytime during 90 minutes say that let us sit back, defend and get a draw with Bahrain. That is not my personality. That is not the way that I have played. Certainly, after two fantastic performances in the first two games, we were not going to sit back and let Bahrain decide what was going to happen in this game.”
Shedding more light on the game, Constantine pointed out, “Firstly, we didn’t play as well as we played in the other two games. Were we nervous? Yes, I think we were. At half-time I calmed them, said that we got this and asked them to relax, keep it tight at the back with no silly mistakes. They have to come on to us, we will get chances. Be patient and we did that.”
He disappointingly explained, “But, as time was going, we started to come back and back. We were defending 10 yards outside our 18-yard box and I kept screaming to push them up, to not sit back. We cannot afford to do that. Then you saw the goal in the 93rd minute was a cross, the ball went underneath Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu), it went to the other side, it came back, (Salam) Ranjan (Singh) cleared the ball. On another day, he puts the ball out of the stadium, this day it goes to the 18-yard box, the player makes a move, Pronay (Halder) put his foot out and the player went over. Penalty!”
Constantine elucidated the thoughts that struck him after the game, as he pondered, “How can you plan that? You can’t. Were we guilty of defending too deep in the last 10-15 minutes? Yes. Could I have done anything different? Unless I got a timeout to get into the game, I lost my voice shouting as we were not holding the ball even when we had it. Look, they gave everything and when a team gives everything, you can’t ask for more. I knew at that moment that for me it was time to step down. For four years, we achieved everything and more that we set out to do.”
He described an anecdote from 2015 when Kushal Das was seeking FIFA World Cup qualification for the national team. Constantine had given the AIFF General Secretary sort of a reality-check by clearly mentioning that the team first needed to qualify for the Asian Cup 2-3 times consecutively. In 2019, they managed to do so and the former head coach explained that now there is a need to maintain continuity in that approach. The tactician lamented, “Do I wish that we could have gone into the last 16 and played China? Hell, yes. I think now Igor (Stimac) has to take them to the next level. You have inherited a winning team. So, what you do now is up to you and I sincerely wish him luck.”
“We were the second youngest team in the Asian Cup. It was a 23-member squad and 14 players were aged below 23. So, do we have a nucleus to continue that? Yes. Now, it is up to Igor to take them back to the Asian Cup and I hope he does,” Stephen Constantine signed off.