Days after calling up four players from last year’s under-17 World Cup squad for the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup preparation camp, Stephen Constantine dismissed the team’s performance last October as ‘hyped’ and said they did not ‘pull up any trees’.
Constantine made these comments at a press conference in Delhi on Sunday. Interestingly, he backtracked from his statement in a release issued by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) hours later. In the statement, Constantine said his comments were ‘misinterpreted.’
Just two weeks ago, Constantine had summoned Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Rahul KP and Rahil Ali from under-17 World Cup squad in his 34-member SAFF Cup probables list. The selection, he had stressed, was in continuation with his philosophy of blooding young players in the team and ‘take up the extra responsibility’. These four players are currently in Spain for an invitational tournament and will join the camp in August. But as rest of the players assembled in Delhi for the month-long camp, the veteran coach struck a different note.
Constantine was asked if he thought the way goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem’s progress after the under-17 World Cup could have been handled better by his managers. Moirangthem was by far the best Indian player in the under-17 World Cup and continued to shine in the I-League, where he played for Indian Arrows. Then, in middle of the season, his agents whisked him off to Scotland for a trial with Motherwell. He spent close to five months with the Scottish club but the deal did not materialise. Eventually, Moirangthem signed with ISL side Kerala Blasters last month.
Constantine said how the players were managed after the under-17 World Cup was ‘nothing to do’ with him. “I have nothing to do with the looking after of that boy. That is not my job. There was a lot of hype on the under-17 team… they didn’t win any games in the World Cup and I am not quite sure what the hype was about. We did okay… but I never saw why we were making such a big deal of the Under-17 team.” Unimpressed by their results, Constantine added: “They didn’t qualify for the World Cup, they hosted it. So did they pull any trees up? They lost all three games. Then they played in the I-League and finished last.” His views were in stark contrast to those of the AIFF so far. The federation has played up India’s three defeats (3-0 to USA, 2-1 to Colombia and 4-0 to Ghana) by harping on the team’s ‘courageous’ performances. The federation sees the hosting of the under-17 World Cup as one of its biggest youth development programmes and have labelled the players as the core group of the national team in the future.
So within hours of Constantine’s comments, the AIFF issued a fresh statement. In the revised version, the 55-year-old said: “The question was put to me with regards to the goalkeeper Dheeraj who has not played for the last 6 months due to no fault of his own. I would like to utilise this opportunity to state that my comments were misinterpreted and now I wish to put the record straight.”
The AIFF further quoted him as saying that the results in I-League and the under-17 World Cup are irrelevant. “I have always said that it’s not about winning but it is about the development in these age-groups. They would have learnt a great deal from the experiences gathered,” he said.
While his opinion differed from the federation with regards to the under-17 World Cup, Constantine adopted a line similar to his employers on the Asian Games snub. Earlier this month, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) refused to grant permission to the men and women football teams to compete in the Asian Games, citing their low ranking. Constantine termed the decision ‘appalling’. “I cannot begin to tell you how disappointed I am. I think it’s an appalling decision. We are not the team we were four or eight years ago. I think it did us harm because I felt that we would have a good opportunity to qualify (for knockout rounds). I think it was a very poor decision,” he said. He said playing ‘big games’ would have been an ideal preparation for January’s Asian Cup, where India have been clubbed with hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain. With Asiad no more a part of their plans, the team has turned its attention to international friendlies to prepare for the continental championship.
India will be playing a top Asian opponent every month starting October in their build up to the Asian Cup. Following the match against China in October, Constantine said they are close to finalising a friendly in November and will play Oman in Abu Dhabi on December 27, he said.
SAFF Cup, trial by fire
His remarks on the results of the under-17 World Cup team could land Stephen Constantine in further trouble, with an AIFF official saying his future will be decided after the SAFF Cup. The source said several senior team players met federation president Praful Patel before the Intercontinental Cup last month, expressing their displeasure with Constantine’s methods. It is learnt that captain Sunil Chhetri had a separate meeting with Patel during the tournament.
The tension between players and the coach have been simmering for close to a year and the official said the AIFF can part ways with him if the team fails to win the SAFF Cup. “We have told the players to give us in writing and there has to be consensus of the whole team. But if the performances at the SAFF Cup are influenced by the ongoing problems, then we might take some action,” the source said. ens