Foot­ball is the new cricket, says In­dia coach Con­stan­tine

Times of Oman - - SPORTS -

ABU DHABI: A no­madic English coach whose colour­ful ca­reer has taken him from Mill­wall to Malawi has got cricket-mad In­dia dream­ing of Asian Cup foot­ball glory.

In­dia stunned Thai­land 4-1 in their open­ing match last week­end to record their first vic­tory at the tour­na­ment in over 50 years and de­spite los­ing 2-0 to hosts United Arab Emi­rates, Stephen Con­stan­tine in­sists foot­ball has knocked cricket of its perch -- at least for a lit­tle bit.

“After qual­i­fy­ing and two out­stand­ing per­for­mances we have done that and more,” the 56-year-old Lon­doner told AFP in an in­ter­view.

“In­di­ans do love their cricket but you re­ally are see­ing a meta­mor­pho­sis in foot­ball and that is re­ally some­thing to be proud of.

“To get to the knock­out stages would be mas­sive,” added Con­stan­tine, who has re­peat­edly been over­looked for jobs in his home coun­try.

“But what­ever hap­pens, we’ve al­ready over­achieved.”

Vet­eran striker Su­nil Ch­hetri over­took Lionel Messi in in­ter­na­tional goals dur­ing the win over Thai­land, earn­ing com­par­isons with In­dia’s cricket skip­per Vi­rat Kohli for his hero­ics, and the Blue Tigers still have their eye on a place in the last 16.

“Foot­ball is as pop­u­lar in In­dia in my opin­ion -- it’s just not writ­ten about as much,” said Con­stan­tine, who wit­nessed con­flict, blood­shed and hu­man suf­fer­ing in his time coach­ing Malawi, Su­dan and Rwanda be­fore re­turn­ing for a sec­ond spell as In­dia boss four years ago.

“Of course when the cricket team is do­ing well and the foot­ball isn’t, there is only go­ing to be one win­ner.

“But that has all changed,” he added, point­ing to the progress his rough di­a­monds have made and the pos­i­tive im­pact of the do­mes­tic In­dian Su­per League since its launch in 2013.

“The fact that we are ca­pa­ble of play­ing the big­ger teams and to com­pete was not the case when I ar­rived. We are a solid unit, we work very hard on all as­pects of the game and on our day can hurt most teams.”

Dras­tic im­prove­ment

De­spite a pop­u­la­tion of 1.3 bil­lion, In­dia has barely reg­is­tered on the foot­ball map -- un­til now.

Beaten fi­nal­ists on their Asian Cup de­but in 1964 when it was a four-team com­pe­ti­tion won by Is­rael, they last qual­i­fied in 2011 when they were thrashed by Aus­tralia, Bahrain and South Ko­rea, con­ced­ing 13 goals in the process.

But the step up in qual­ity shown by the world’s 97th-ranked na­tional side this time around has been lit­tle short of as­ton­ish­ing.

“In a nut­shell it’s down to the play­ers, they have given me ev­ery­thing,” said Con­stan­tine, whose young team face Bahrain on Mon­day in their fi­nal Group A game.

“I’m so proud of the work rate, de­ter­mi­na­tion and the at­ti­tude of the play­ers.”

Part of the se­cret of In­dia’s dras­tic im­prove­ment un­der Con­stan­tine lies in the English­man’s em­pha­sis on sports sci­ence, nu­tri­tion and mon­i­tor­ing the “well­ness” of his play­ers.

“That holis­tic ap­proach has proved to be suc­cess­ful over the last sev­eral years both here in In­dia and in other coun­tries I have coached in,” said Con­stan­tine, who as Su­dan coach once had ri­fles pulled on him while driv­ing from Khartoum to scout a player.

Con­stan­tine is not eas­ily in­tim­i­dated, spark­ing dis­may in In­dia by strip­ping Ch­hetri of the cap­taincy be­fore the Asian Cup.

But he has bowled a goo­gly at his crit­ics as har­mony has re­turned, and he prom­ises the best is yet to come.

“When I think back to 2015 and where we were, we have in­deed come a long way,” he said. “The fact that this is the youngest team in the his­tory of In­dian foot­ball, I’m cer­tain the fu­ture is bright.”

– File Photo

SEA CHANGE: Head coach of the In­dian foot­ball team Stephen Con­stan­tine dur­ing a press con­fer­ence.

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