Stephen Constantine feels it’s time the Indian football team starts thinking beyond South Asia and push for ASEAN (South-East Asia) or Central Asian competitions. Constantine led India to a seventh SAFF Cup title on Sunday, beating Afghanistan 2-1 in extra time.
However, there have been murmurs in the football fraternity for a long time that the team should move to a more competitive ASEAN or Central Asia sub-federations, which will provide them an opportunity to rub shoulders with better quality opponents and also help development of football in the country.
Shifting zonal allegiance isn’t completely unheard of in world football although the process isn’t so straightforward. Australia moved from Oceania to Asian Football Confederation in 2005 while more recently, in June 2014, Afghanistan joined the newly-formed Central Asian Football Federation although they still continue playing in the South Asian zone as well.
India have long been the South Asian bullies but the team generally falls flat when pitted against tougher opponents from the continent. When asked if the team should push for ASEAN or Central Asian championships, Constantine told The Indian Express: “I agree. I had said that the last time I was here, during my first stint in India (from 2002 to 2005).”
The gulf in class between India and rest of the Asian teams has been apparent during the ongoing 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup joint qualifying campaign. India have won just one out of the six matches they’ve played and are at the bottom of the five-team Group D, with just two more matches, against Iran and Turkmenistan, to be played.
Constantine maintained that the two matches will be vastly different from the SAFF Cup, and preferred to play down the expectations. “The SAFF is one level, the qualifiers are at an entirely different level. You cannot compare SAFF teams to the national sides of Iran, Oman and Turkmenistan. We will take one game at a time. We have a very difficult game against Iran and then our home match against Turkmenistan. Our target has always been to get to the final group stages and from there, anything can happen,” he said.
At the start of the campaign, India believed a third-place finish behind Iran and Oman was a realistic possibility but shock away defeats to lesser-fancied teams like Guam and Turkmenistan jeopardized the team’s chances of making the cut for the Asian Cup. There were voices in the federation which called for his sacking, but Constantine found support from the AIFF top bosses.
No second thoughts
Constantine insisted he did not have second thoughts over his future with the team during the testing period, saying it was ‘important for people to understand what it takes to put a team together, keep them together and win a game.’ “I never had any doubts in my capability as a coach to build a team. It’s the only thing I know how to do. There will also be people who will doubt you in every sphere of life. There will always be people who will have a different opinion but at the end of the day it’s my responsibility and mine alone,” he said.
The Englishman added the team’s disappointing performance over the last 12 months cannot be termed as a ‘lean patch’, stressing on the fact that he introduced ‘20 players to international football’ during this period. In his first four games itself, 13 players made their national team debuts. While some, like Jackichand Singh, have fallen out of favour others such as Rowlin Borges have justified the faith put in them by the coach.
Constantine said the team spirit and number of youngsters blooded into the team were couple of biggest takeaways from the SAFF Cup but he continued to regret the lack of time he got with the players. “Building a team takes time and patience and it’s so difficult at an international level for the obvious reason of not getting enough time for them to gel together,” he said. “Football is a fast moving sport and we need people who can move up and down on the field and possess football intelligence. I think that we have laid foundations for some years to come and are not finished yet.”