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Stephen Constantine took India forward after Wim Koevermans' dark age

07:54 GMT+4 19/01/2019
Stephen Constantine
There is no doubt the Englishman delivered what he was brought in for, especially given the circumstances from which he did so....

During his time at the helm of affairs of India's senior men's football team, Stephen Constantine hardly got much accolades. However, his work was out there to be seen and the strides India took under him were immense.

Imagine taking over the reins of a national team at its lowest ever FIFA ranking and within three years, qualify for a first major tournament on merit in 35 years, jumping 76 places up the ladder not being the least of it.

After decades of hush squealing, the Arsenal-supporting manager had made the Blue Tigers roar again.

All this holds greater significance simply due to the work, or lack thereof by Constantine's predecessor, Wim Koevermans, who had pushed India to a new low.

The Dutchman had been installed as India coach in 2012 and started off with a bang by retaining the Nehru Cup in New Delhi. But, failure to qualify for the 2014 Challenge Cup and losing out to Afghanistan in the 2013 SAFF Championship final indicated things were turning south.

Koevermans had stuck his own ideas of 'total football' and the 'pass and move' style which had Indian players found wanting. His unwillingness to work around with his resources and identify the best man for the best job found him no sympathizers.

His ill-fated run came to an end in October 2014 in Siliguri after a 3-2 defeat to Palestine. He had taken over India, ranked 163rd and left it at 171st, among 209 nations. India were 35th in Asia, behind Afghanistan and Maldives and on par with Pakistan. In 20 games, India won only 8 and scored 26 goals, keeping 6 clean sheets.

A second calling for Constantine after his first spell in the noughties, came about the right time. The goal was simple - to qualify for the Asian Cup the long and hard way with the AFC Challenge Cup scrapped. He delivered.

Expectedly, India bowed out of the race to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, which made the focus even clearer come June 2016. India would embrak on a 13-game unbeaten run by then which only came to an end last year, after having already qualified for the Asian Cup and also broken into the double digits in the FIFA Rankings in July 2017, 96th - India's best ever since 1996.

On his way, Constantine was helped by several key factors. High levels of professionalism dripped into Indian football with the advent of the Indian Super League (ISL) and the development in sport science and analytics, which his backroom staff took utmost advantage of.

Still, the former Rwanda national team manager had plenty of detractors. During his tenure, he had given 40-odd players their maiden national call-ups but was still accused of turning a blind eye on several.

Players like Halicharan Narzary, who did not appear to please fans with his lack of razzmatazz, found important roles within his side. Even the likes Sumeet Passi, in his limited opportunitites, showcased why the manager chose him which he displayed against Jordan in trying circumstances by constantly holding the ball up in the box.

A new wave of fans for the national team arose as he delivered the 2015-16 SAFF Championship, 2017 Tri-Nations Series and the 2018 Intercontinental Cup, all on home soil. He chose to take an Under-23 squad to the 2018 SAFF Championship in Bangladesh and got beat by Maldives in the final.

In 39 senior games, Constantine's record flies high with 21 wins, 6 draws and 12 losses. His team had even scripted huge come-from-behind victories against Laos (6-1) and Puerto Rico (4-1); even bore the brunt of Iran's 4-0 thrashing at the Azaadi Stadium in Tehran. But more importantly, he proved India should dream bigger.

India gave a good account of themselves in the 2019 Asian Cup but fell short. "This is not what India deserved but this is football", said Constantine of the last minute penalty that knocked them out before handing in his papers.

The onus will be on the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to learn from the cycle and only take the good work done by Stephen Constantine further, into the coming tournaments.