IN THE two years he has spent with the national team, Stephen Constantine has handed international debuts to as many as 29 players in his first 12 months as he looked for a perfect combination for a team undergoing a transition. As India gear-up for the final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers, Constantine asserts the auditioning stages are now over. “I have experimented over the last two years and I don’t need to do that now. I have a group of players I am comfortable with,” he says. During the two-year period, where India suffered a shock defeat to Guam in the qualifiers but later stunned a higher-ranked Puerto Rico side 4-1 at home, the core group of players Constantine had been rotating started to settle considerably.
It’s a leap in their performances that has come, according to the Englishman, as a result of the players’ change in mentality. During the early phase of the World Cup qualifying campaign, Sunil Chhetri and Subrata Pal were the only two experienced players present in the team, which consisted largely of the youngsters Constantine had called up for the first time. Now though, the team is ready to move up a step.
“The first round of qualifiers we learned how to compete, because we were not competing against anybody for two years,” says the 54-year-old. “This year we have to learn how to qualify.”
Ahead of the opening third round Asian Cup qualifying match against Myanmar in Yangon, the squad of 24 will travel to Phnom Penh, to take on hosts Cambodia in a friendly. The team assembled in Mumbai last weekend for the camp, but have shown signs of fatigue after a long domestic season – which started with the Indian Super League campaign last October. When asked about the players’ fitness, Constantine bluntly replies, “It does not match up.”
Yet that wasn’t the only hurdle the team faced. The last time the national team players met was in September, days before their friendly against Puerto Rico. Since then, he hasn’t had much time in getting the players to gel together in the national team. Yet, he remains optimistic ahead of the first qualifier against Myanmar on March 28. “On paper, it’s not bad. So yes, we have a chance.”