2017 IS GOING to be a crucial year for the Indian football team.
Early on in the year the Blue Tigers got a leg up in the FIFA rankings, and they are months away from beginning their year-long campaign in the Asian Cup Qualifiers (3rd Round). Doing well there promises them a chance to play in the 2019 continental championship; something India have not done since 2011.
Most of the credit of their progress thus far is universally attributed to Stephen Constantine, the British coach who has worked over the last 2 years to build the next generation of Indian football team, handing international debuts to about two dozen promising youngsters and bringing down the average age of the squad.
The last 2 years saw Constantine's boys struggle through back to back defeats in the World Cup Qualifiers, but there were bright moments like winning the SAFF Championship and defeating Puerto Rico in an international friendly. And when all is said and done, India are now placed 129th in the world; their best ranking in years.
But while the fans were looking forward to see the Blue Tigers compete in the Asian qualifiers under Constantine come March, rumours broke out in certain sections of the media that the gaffer had an offer from an A-League club, and he was considering leaving his job as the head coach of Indian national team.
To clear things up, Constantine spared some time from his tight schedule of hopping between his office in New Delhi and attending I-League matches to scout for more potential players to speak to TFG.
So, is he on his way out? Are the rumours true? The 54 year old veteran replied,
"I am stumped as to where [this rumour] comes from. I have not been approached by any Clubs in the A-League. There’s absolutely no truth in it. At the moment I am fully committed to the Indian National Team and we have our first qualifying game in March. We have already started to plan for the first game and will take every game as it comes. I will also be attending the [AFC Asian Cup 2019 Qualifiers 3rd Round] draw in Abu Dhabi on the 23rd."
On Monday, India will be sorted into a group with 3 other countries, forming the focal point of the Blue Tigers' calendar for the next 12 months. The road to qualification is long, but Constantine sounded confident that we have a genuine chance of making it there,
"We are delighted to be in the draw. This is something which has not happened in Indian Football for the quite some years. I feel this is where India belongs, that is, at the business end of these competitions. I have said from the very beginning that what you do will determine where you go. I think the last two years have been very productive for us and we have achieved whatever we had set out to achieve. Going forward our target is to qualify for the finals."
One of the major challenges that Constantine has during his second spell as India coach is the dense domestic calendar that takes time away from the national team. He has had preparatory camps cancelled, international friendlies scrapped and a rigorously planned tour of America called off to make room for ISL; often going into crucial away matches with insufficient preparations and fatigued players. But with the I-League set to pause for a long international break in March and a potential merger (or "restructuring") of leagues around the corner, Constantine will have more time with the team, and players will have longer rests between games. He said that the Asian qualifiers will have a much more elaborate preparatory structure around them,
"We plan to play friendly games before each of the qualifying matches. The biggest nightmare for any National Coach stays the physical condition of the players as and when they report to the camp. Besides the conditioning in the Camp, we also need to see how they gel together in international matches. That helps immensely."
But now, watching his players ply their trade in the I-League, Constantine said he was happy that the youngsters that got international debuts under him were playing regular top division football, but stressed that they needed more international exposure to develop as players,
"Every time they play a game, they improve. There is a huge difference in the level of intensity between a Hero I-League or a Hero ISL match and that of international football. In fact, that won’t change till some of the Indian players start going abroad. I have had a number of interested people asking about some of our players and I will be happy when we will have more Indian footballers playing abroad. They have the ability but they need the determination and courage to go out and play."
Meanwhile, the technical staff of the national team are staying regularly in touch with every player tipped for the Team India roster, providing guidance and advice even when the national camp wasn't in session. Constantine explained,
"I keep in touch with the Players in terms of their physical preparation and we want them to come into the national team in a good condition. We are also working with a number of clubs– we don’t want the players to be injured and neither do the clubs. Venky (Venkatesh) and myself are obviously watching the form of the players and for us it’s important that we monitor their form."
So, Constainte seems to have a fairly well-structured plan in place for the national team's next year. How does he hope for that to reflect on India's ranking? The gaffer replied,
"I am very pleased that we have climbed the FIFA rankings. I had said on day one that by the time I leave, we will be a much better position than we are now. I would like us to reach within the top 100 but to do that we have to beat some very good teams, and for that, we need to stay together longer as a team."
Having been a vocal proponent of Indian players going to play abroad from the get go, Constantne said he was aware of what seems to be a surge in young Indian professional players and academy cadets to either be picked by a foreign club or academy or go abroad to seek training as footballers on their own accord. Constantine said that this was a positive trend but the players have long struggles to face out there,
"I think it’s important that Indian players aspire and believe that they can go and play abroad. Personally I believe they can, under the right circumstance. What they need to understand is the level of competition that they would face abroad and they would need to fight in every single training session to earn their right to stay there. Of course, it won’t be easy for them and nothing is guaranteed."
While nothing is ever guaranteed in football, what we know now for sure is that India will be going into their Asian qualfiers better prepared, play a lot more international friendlies, and Stephen Constantine will be there at the helm of the squad, perhaps handing out international debuts to a dozen more promising youngsters by the time we're done with the 3rd round.
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