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

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


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

We had 12 players and rainy conditions. I wasn’t shocked, but a little surprised. I thought there would be more players. I thought the conditions weren’t going to be the best and they weren’t. But it is what it is. I came to work. So I’ll 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 can correct many mistakes next season.

Also a nice group in terms of partnership… since almost everyone is new to the club?

It is not the case that all foreigners sit at one table and the Indians separately. And I’ve heard horror stories about that since my arrival. To me they are all the same, they just have different roles. Of course the foreigners have a different level in terms of base. I think the Indian players still don’t have the basics they need to play outside. That has been identified with Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu). (The Indian goalkeeper played three seasons with Norway’s Stabaek and played 11 games). But I can’t blame him because he didn’t get the information.

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

I didn’t come here to lose and I’m pretty sure the players feel the same way. But it’s our first time, we’re a new team. The Indian guys have responded very well by doing what I need and I won’t put them in positions where they don’t play.

Is a top six place realistic because it will keep you in the mix for a playoff berth?

Let’s go outside; we have not seen what we are capable of. We have not conceded in four of our last eight friendlies. Can we put that into a competitive game now? We’ll know on Friday. I want us to get 35 points (from the competition phase). (Based on the standings of the last four seasons, that would guarantee a place in the top three).

How different is it to look at East Bengal as the head coach of India and be a part of it?

The most important thing for me is that we are not where we should be for who we are. And I’m going to change that. I can’t do that alone. I need people like Nitu da (Debabrata Sarkar, the influential member of the club’s executive committee) 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’re not going to go undefeated. 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 that by the time I leave you will be in a better place than when I came.

Crusty is perhaps the word most commonly used to describe Stephen Constantine. Honest comment or have you softened?

(Smiles) This is how I see things: you hired me because you have a problem and you ask me to solve 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. Not me. If there are people who are not doing what they should be doing and it affects me, then I have a problem. I am responsible and you should be too. Just because you’re the cook or the kit manager, you can’t be spared. But I’ve also had people who have worked with me for the past 15 years.

Have I become milder? I don’t think so, I don’t want to soften. I’m quite happy with my flaws. I say it honestly as I see it. I am a little abrasive at times. But in this business you have no choice. I can’t always be a nice guy.

You first saw ISL in 2015 and it wasn’t the best introduction.

In the beginning I was against ISL, not against the concept but against certain rules. I was against the (players) draft and that turned out to be a disaster. I was up against 6+1 foreigners because I was going to watch Indian players in an Indian league and I would see Ashique Kuruniyan as a left back! I have a problem when we play 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 good for the player.

Have things changed since then?

It’s been nine years now, so we’re not a new league anymore. We should, may I say, be in a better position than we are now. But many ISL are not what they used to be. The new schedule, where matches are played in the weekend, is great. They have evolved, I think it took a little too long, but better late than never. And we still have things to do. We need 12 teams; we need promotion and relegation. That’s 22 games. Split the top six and the bottom six and you have 10 competitive games left. That way, all games have meaning.

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

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

I am immersed in this game. I took under 23 for all my national teams with no extra money because I had to work. And I’m really happy that I’ve had the career that I had. It is clear that taking India to the Asian Cup final was one of the main highlights. And given our position when I arrived (176 in the FIFA rankings in 2015), I think the staff and the players are fantastic. What 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. It will always be.

At club level, I’m in their face from Monday to Friday. It’s a little harder, I think, than seeing me five times a year. But I will get the most out of you, one way or another. Or you don’t play. The biggest problem with any national team is when 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 hard to beat, but they don’t play beautiful football.

I learned this very early on: you can see a team train, you can see the style of play, but if you don’t have the players they have, how on earth are you going to replicate that? Coaching is something personal. It’s about your personality. I’d say I’m a fighter. I play with the strengths of our players.

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

You’ve been watching football in India for twenty years. What has changed?

A lot, for better and worse. I think we now have a lot of cheaters trying to make money from the game. But that’s football. Could we have done more? Yes. I think we could have had a much better training system for coaches. We need to have better coaches than at the age group level. People who understand how to teach. If you don’t see the error in the session and can’t fix it there, you’re just training, not teaching. As with foreign players, the foreign coach has the information 10-15 years earlier than our guys. I was asked if I could bring an Indian to 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 then it’s too late because when you get a foreign player it’s plug and play.

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