Stephen Constantine, the Englishman, will begin his second stint as India’s chief coach on Thursday against Nepal, a team he has coached before. A few years back, India would hardly sweat over this fixture. But the sense of trepidation cannot escape as they prepare for a new beginning under their former coach.
It’s not just the opponents that makes the team anxious. Not even a year has passed since the previous World Cup ended and before over 90 percent of the countries even begin to think about qualification for the showpiece event in Russia, India know their dreams could be over.
But then, this isn’t about Russia 2018. For India, this is more than just a World Cup qualifier. Beating Nepal will put India in the group stages of qualification which will earn them crucial matches against other Asian teams. It will also increase the country’s chances of appearing in the 2019 Asian Cup after the Asian Football Confederation combined qualification for the continental and global tournaments.
A defeat, on the other hand, would mean that apart from the friendlies and regional tournaments, India will have no international fixture for the next four years. Constantine knows that for a team ranked 171, the prospect of not playing competitive football for four years would be disastrous.
And he has wasted no time in proving he means business. In his first match in charge, he has picked 11 debutantes in the squad, named a new captain and completely overhauled the support staff.
This Indian set-up has a very different look and feel to the previous ones. One of the major criticisms that marred Wim Koevermans’ highly-unsuccessful stint as India coach was his failure to give some of the proven performers in the I-League a fair chance. He persisted with the same set of players despite them under-performing severely. And his strategy to play with Sunil Chhetri as the lone striker did not reap rewards.
Chhetri has been freed of the captaincy, with Constantine preferring goalkeeper Subrata Pal instead. And by selecting players Balwant Singh, Jackichand Singh, Mandar Rao Desai, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Keegan Pereira and Sandesh Jhingan, the 52-year-old has shown reputations won’t count for much. He has not hesitated in dropping the likes of Gouramangi Singh, Syed Rahim Nabi, Mehtab Hossain and Lalrindika Ralte, who have not been consistent but were a part of Koevermans’ squad.
The young side will be tested by Nepal in the two-legged match; not because Nepal have improved but India have been that bad since the Koevermans era. The team surrendered its regional supremacy after losing to Nepal in the SAF Cup final two years ago and were further embarrassed by Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Last four years have also seen Afghanistan leapfrog India to become South Asia’s highest-ranked team. Constantine has inherited a side that is low on confidence and has been unable to deal with the transitional phase well. He has his task cut-out.