In this exclusive interview, the former coach of Malawi details his time in charge of the Flames...Stephen Constantine, the current coach of Sudan, is renowned for his willingness to take on some of the most demanding tasks in world football. The Englishman has been employed as the head coach of Nepal, India and notably, Malawi, from 2007 to 2008.
In the wake of the Flames' initial success at the Africa Cup of Nations, Constantine explains how he came to coach the African side, the challenges he faced there and how he helped lay the groundwork for the side's good showing at Angola 2010.
Goal.com: What attracted you to Malawi? How did you end up taking the job?
Stephen Constantine: They were one of a couple of options I had at the time. I coached in Asia, Europe, North America and it was an opportunity to go to Africa. And with the World Cup [in South Africa], I thought it was a chance to go. So I went. I had an opportunity to go back to Asia but I hadn't coached in Africa. There is a lot of talent there. I like travelling, I like seeing other places and Malawi was the option I chose at the time.
Did you know much about Malawi and the Malawian FA before you took the posting?
Before I take a job I do a bit of research and make a decision. They've got loads of good players there. Some play in Europe and most play in South Africa.
In what state was the infrastructure at the Malawi camp when you arrived?
The infrastructure in most of the African football associations is not the best in the world. But the talent is there. If you work with the players, it helps improve them tactically. I think you can do a lot of great things. With the amount of courses that FIFA do, it's getting better. But it's not where it should be.
Would you say that the grassroots and under-age programmes in Malawi are insufficient?
The grassroots in most countries in Africa are not what they should be. If the players manage to get into the under 17s, then they have access to a better quality of local coaches. Or, in most cases, foreign coaches come from Europe to help the local coach. Which is what I did in Malawi.
What did you have to change when you got there, in terms of methodology and training?
We changed the methodology. The players in Africa, they don't really get coached properly, most of them, unless they go to the national team. If the national team has a foreign coach, that's great. If they don't, there's not a great deal of coaching going on. So that was one of the key areas we started to work on; methodology of coaching, how to build up from defence into attack.
Tactically, that's really the main area because from an individual point of view, most African players are very skilful. It's just that they are not schooled properly from an early age to deal with the tactical aspect of it. So that was the biggest thing we worked on for most of the time that I was there. It was all exercises; but tactical exercises - how to defend when we've got the ball, how to defend when we don't have the ball; that kind of thing.
How did the senior players react when you arrived? Was there complacency there as there was in the India squad when you took over?
I think that the senior Malawian players, Essau Kanyenda, Peter Mponda and Robert Ng'ambi, these guys' attitudes were excellent. Of course, you have one or two players who are going to go off the rails. We had some problems with Joseph Kamwendo. He went to Denmark and I think he thought that he had reached the level and he didn't need to do the work. But, when you get that complacency, you need to do something about it and if the player reacts in the right way, he's got a chance to come back. To be fair to the lad, he's worked very hard to get back into the position where he's playing for the national team. He's a great player.
What is the standard like in the national league in Malawi? Did you see much of it?
I was going to one or two games every week. The national league is poor. You'll notice that 85 per cent of the players in that national team are not from the local leagues. That will tell you something.
How would you rate the state of the team at the time of your departure?
When I arrived, the team hadn't won back-to-back games for some time and we actually went six games without winning; playing teams like South Africa, Namibia, Senegal and Tunisia. From the six games we lost, we lost to four teams that were in the Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana. And to be fair, the President, Walter Nyamilandu, really backed me. He knew that I was laying the foundations for things to come. And then just before I left, we beat Namibia, Swaziland and Mozambique.
Just after that, I left. But, as I said, I think we did a very good job to turn things around, to get the players disciplined. The tactical play and the positional play of the team now is as it was when I left. In fact, I would say that 95 per cent of the players that are there are either players that we brought through or were there when we left. Kinnah [Phiri] has been very clever, because he hasn't tried to change things. I think with his knowledge of the team and the way we worked, he's done a fantastic job to continue that. I'm not trying to take credit for that by the way.
What do you know about [current Malawi coach] Kinnah Phiri? Have you worked with him?
He was my assistant for the first part of my time there; I would say he knows how to read the game quite well. He knows the players; this team has been together for quite some time. [But] you don't need to do too much to this team.
Are any of the Malawian squad capable of playing at a higher level?
The captain, Peter Mponda for sure. Robert Ng'ambi for sure. And Essau is already out, Russel [Mwafulirwa] is out. I think Joseph [Kamwendo] is a player who perhaps deserves another opportunity to play in Europe. I think he's a bit more mature now than the last time he went. They've got a few players who could play above where they're playing now.
What have you made of the Africa Cup of Nations so far?
I was going to say Cameroon are strong, but the thing with this Africa Cup of Nations is that everything has been absolutely turned on its head - like the 4-4 with Mali and the result yesterday [Gabon defeating Cameroon].
Egypt beating Nigeria, for me, was a surprise because having seen Egypt, I didn't think they were going to be that strong with the players that they have. I did say I quite fancied Gabon but, to be fair, I didn't expect them to beat Cameroon. So when the games are like that it's great.
And of course I'm delighted for Malawi. They have a tough game today with Angola and if they can get something out of that then obviously they're going to have a great chance to go to the next round.
Interview: Peter Staunton, Goal.com