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Need 12 teams, promotion and relegation and 32 games in an ISL season: Stephen Constantine

No one among coaches in the Indian Super League (ISL), a new season of which begins on Friday, knows football in this country like Stephen Constantine. A former India head coach for seven years, spread over two stints, Constantine is now in charge of East Bengal. The Anglo-Cypriot spoke about his time with the national team and his expectations from his first club assignment in India.

Excerpts:

How have things changed from the August morning you landed in Kolkata and now?

We had 12 players and rainy conditions. I wasn’t shocked but I was a little surprised. I thought there would be more players. I didn’t think the conditions would be the best and they weren’t. But it is what it is. I came to work. So, I will find a way to get my points across and get what I think the players need. Now we have 27 players, a great group. I am hopeful that we will be able to right a lot of wrongs in the coming season.

A great group in terms of mateship too… given that almost everyone is new at the club?

It is not like all the foreigners are at one table and the Indians are sitting separately. And I have heard horror stories about that since I came. For me they are all the same, they just have different roles. Of course, the foreigners have a different level in terms of foundation. I think, the Indian players still do not have the foundation they need to be able to go out and play. That has been identified with Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu). (The India goalie spent three seasons at Norway’s Stabaek playing 11 games). But I can’t blame him because he didn’t get the information.

The past two seasons may have been underwhelming but at East Bengal, there will always be expectations.

I didn’t come here to lose and I am pretty sure the players feel the same way. But it’s our first time, we are a new team. The Indian boys have responded very well doing what I require and I will not put them in positions they don’t play.

Is being in the top six realistic because it keeps you in the mix for a playoff berth?

Let’s get out there; we haven’t seen what we are capable of. In four of our last eight friendly games, we have not conceded. Can we put that in a competitive game now? We will find out on Friday. I want us to get 35 points (from the league phase). (Based on the standings of the past four seasons, that would guarantee a berth in the top three).

How different is looking at East Bengal as India head coach and being part of it?

The biggest thing for me is that we are not where we should be for who we are. And I am going to change that. I can’t do that by myself. I need people like Nitu da (Debabrata Sarkar, the club’s influential executive committee member) and (investors) Emami Group to be with me 100%. And when the s**t hits the fan and we lose two, three games in a row, they understand that this is a process. We are not going to go unbeaten. We are not going to win the league in our first season! But the effort will be there and I can promise all East Bengal fans by the time I leave you will be in a better place than when I came.

Crusty is possibly the word most used to describe Stephen Constantine. Fair comment or have you mellowed?

(Smiles) This is how I see things: you have hired me because you have a problem and you are asking me to fix the problem. Most clubs and national teams have said, “do your thing.” Mr (Praful) Patel (former AIFF president) and Kushal Das (former AIFF general secretary) gave me the authority in most cases to do what I thought was best. Other people have agendas. I don’t. If there are people who are not doing what they are supposed to be doing and it affects me, I have a problem. I am accountable and so should you be. Just because you are the cook or the kit manager, you can’t be spared. But I have also had people who worked with me for the last 15 years.

Have I mellowed? I don’t think so, I don’t want to mellow. I am quite happy with my flaws. I genuinely say it as I see it. I am a little abrasive at times. But in this business, you don’t have a choice. I can’t be a nice guy all the time.

2015 was when you first saw ISL and it wasn’t the best of introductions.

In the beginning, I was against ISL, not the concept but some regulations. I was against the (players’) draft and that has proven to be a disaster. I was against 6+1 foreigners because I would go to watch Indian players in an Indian league and I would see Ashique Kuruniyan at left back! I have a problem when we are playing an away international and clubs wanted players to fly back immediately after the game. No rest, no recovery and you just stick them on a plane! I had a problem with that because it wasn’t right for the player.

Have things changed since?

It’s nine years now so we are not a new league anymore. We should be, can I say, in a better position than we are. But a lot of ISL isn’t what it was then. The new schedule, where games are being played on the weekend, is super. They have evolved, I think it has taken them a little bit too long but better late than never. And we still need to do things. We need 12 teams; we need promotion and relegation. That’s 22 games. Split top six and bottom six and you have 10 more competitive games. That way all games are meaningful.

The other thing is six foreigners. As one of the coaches said in Mumbai (at a recent meeting of ISL coaches), what are we trying to do as a league? Become better as a league or help develop Indian players? I think we need to focus on developing the Indian players. I said, three plus none (foreigners in every game). We have got six, four can play. If the team qualifies for AFC competition, they can play six, if they don’t 3+1. At the moment that is the best-case scenario for us.

For most of your professional life, you have been a national team head coach and FIFA instructor. How different is a club job?

I am immersed in this game. I took under-23s for all my national teams for no extra money because I needed to work. And I am really pleased that I have had the career I had. Obviously, taking India to the Asian Cup finals was one of the major highlights. And given our position when I arrived (176 in FIFA rankings in 2015), I think the staff, the players were magnificent. The thing I am proud of is that we were the second youngest team there and what does that show? It shows interest in developing Indian players. That will always be the case.

At club level, Monday to Friday I am in their face. It’s a little bit harder, I suppose, than seeing me five times a year. But I will get the maximum out of you, one way of another. Or you won’t be playing. The biggest problem with any national team is if you lose. You wait two months to fix it if you are lucky. And you carry that with you, I do.

The consensus is that Constantine’s teams are difficult to beat but they don’t play pretty football.

I learnt this very early: you can watch some team train, you can see its style of play but unless you have the players they have, how on earth are you going to replicate that? Coaching is a personal thing. It’s about your personality. I would say I am a fighter. I play to the strengths of our players.

With the national team in India, people would say we played long ball. Meaning Gurpreet long ball, Jeje (Lalpekhlua) or another player with a bit of height and if we won the second ball, we would take it from there. Did we knock the ball long when we were under pressure? Yeah. Did we try and play out of the back? No. Why take that risk in and around your 18-yard box when we really don’t have that kind of players? Did we play pretty football? I don’t even know what that means. And I wouldn’t care. I got the results.

You have seen football in India for 20 years. What has changed?

A lot, for better and worse. I think we have many imposters trying to make money out of the game now. But that’s football. Could we have done more? Yes. I think we could have had a much better coach education system. We must have better coaches than we do at age-group level. People who understand how to teach. If you don’t see the mistake in the session and can’t fix it in there, you are just training, not teaching. Like with foreign players, the foreign coach has got the information 10-15 years before our boys. I was asked if I could bring an Indian into Pafos (his last club) who would it be? I said Ashique Kuruniyan, maybe Anirudh Thapa. Would they struggle? 100%. Would they get it? Maybe in three or six months. But by then it is too late because when you get a foreign player it is plug and play.


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