The last time Stephen Constantine took charge of India for a competitive match in the country, over 100,000 people crammed into the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. Zico’s Japan were in town for a 2006 FIFA World Cup™ qualifier, with the Samurai Blue running out 4-0 winners and Shinji Ono among the goalscorers. Since that remarkable day in September 2004, Constantine’s travels have taken him to club roles in England and Cyprus, as well as coaching in Africa, recently guiding Rwanda to their highest ever FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking of 68th.
This week, over a decade after that game against Japan, Constantine will take charge of India once more in a very different but arguably more important clash. Another of Constantine’s former sides Nepal are the visitors, in the first round of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying in Asia, with the Indian national team looking to capitalise on the recent surge in popularity of domestic football in the country.
“I’m humbled that they decided to bring me to India, there were quite a lot of names in for the job,” Constantine said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “I’m really very excited. There is a big difference in terms of organisation and facilities, they’re better than they were. I think the Indian Super League (ISL) has made a huge improvement to the marketing and everything else that revolves around football. I’m very excited to be back. We’ll do everything we can to get past this very difficult opponent.”
The game represents something of a sentimental challenge for Constantine. Nepal offered him his first route into international management, with the Englishman taking charge of the Gorkhalis between 1999 and 2001. In fact, his only previous experience of this particular fixture was a 4-0 defeat by India, when coaching Nepal in September 1999. The latest edition of this particular rivalry is likely to be tighter than ever, with India having slipped to their lowest position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, now just nine places above Nepal.
“I think in ten years, a lot has changed, but there’s still a lot that needs to be fixed,” Constantine said. “You have to prepare yourself for success, it doesn’t just come. I don’t know if we’ve done enough in the past ten years to get the success that we want. India has a bright future, the boss says we’re a huge giant. That’s great, but what have we done to prepare to be successful? We’re 171st [in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking], and I think that says it all.”
Executing long-term positive change is something Constantine has tried to do wherever he has been, and his most recent success with Rwanda saw him bring in Lee Johnson as technical director, with the Englishman currently in interim charge. This is something Constantine is particularly proud of, after setting up the British Coaches Abroad Association to promote the work of British coaches and managers who ply their trade away from the United Kingdom. What of the general consensus that Brits do not want to go abroad, preferring ‘home comforts’?
“We have about 120 British coaches who are working all around the world,” Constantine said. “I think British coaches are going abroad, maybe not the top teams in Europe, because if you’re a coach in the Championship or the English Premier League you’re not going to get the same money in the top league in Greece or Spain.
“I think it’s very difficult for the top British managers to go abroad because the contracts they get in England are much better, and you always want to be at home. OK, David Moyes has gone to Spain [with Real Sociedad], but I don’t think that was necessarily in his plans when he was at Manchester United or Everton. If you do look at the top leagues around the world, there aren’t too many English managers, but if you go down, there are quite a few.”
Constantine is certainly one of those working away from the limelight. However, international scrutiny could come his way if India make it through the two-legged affair against their rivals. They would then enter the hat for the second round of AFC qualifying, with continental giants Iran, Australia, Korea Republic and Japan joining the party.
“For me we need to look forwards,” Constantine continued. “Whatever has happened in the past has happened. We need to change a few things. I believe I have the support from the AIFF to make those changes and I’m very optimistic that we won’t be where we are now in a couple of years.”
The slightly more modest venue of the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati has been chosen for India’s home leg of the tie, meaning less than a third of that enormous 2004 crowd will turn out to see the Blue Tigers take on Nepal. The footballing hopes of the planet’s second-most populous nation rest on the shoulders of Constantine and his squad. The coach will be hoping that 30,000 can make enough noise for 1.2 billion.
You can read 18 Frequently Asked Questions on the Russia 2018 preliminary competition in the related items