SAFF Suzuki Cup: India

Photo: Twitter/AIFFMedia

SAFF Suzuki Cup: India's triumph a glowing endorsement of Stephen Constantine

It was a tense final at the SAFF Suzuki Cup in Trivandrum on Sunday, 3 January. After Afghanistan took the lead in the middle of the second half, Indian came back strongly, and produced some of their best football in the tournament to come back and win the game by a score of 2-1 in extra time.

Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu were the heroes for India as the Blue Tigers regained the title they had last won at home in 2011. One man who would have heaved a huge sigh of relief following the win was head coach Stephen Constantine.

The Englishman, since coming on for his second stint last year, had only managed two wins before the sub-continental tournament, against Nepal and Guam. With India losing five of their six World Cup qualifying games last year, Constantine's job came under close scrutiny last year.

Sunday's SAFF Cup triumph will buy some much needed time for Constantine, who will lead India to their final two 2nd round World Cup qualifiers in March. With India aiming to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup, Stephen Constantine's role with the national team can't be of greater importance than now.

Transitional phase

Wim Koevermans left India with an aging national team at the end of 2014. With the likes of Gourmangi, Mehtab, etc. past their prime, it was quite evident that the Blue Tigers needed some young blood in the team. Constantine came in and assembled his own coaching staff.

Savio Medeira, controversial for being hugely influential under the Koevermans regime, was shunted out from Constantine's senior team staff, much to the relief of Indian football fans. The Englishman then surprised everyone by giving debuts to as many as five players in his first ever game in charge.

Since then, Constantine has given debuts to a number of youngsters, including DSK youth product Lallianzuala. Despite India heading into a transitional phase, the British tactician has kept his faith with most of his players.

This is not to suggest that Constantine's approach to the game is dogmatic when it comes to young players. Sunday's win over Afghanistan saw India play a more conservative game to help a struggling defence against a strong Afghan attack. While India did carry a bit of luck of get over the finishing line, it was a tactical masterclass from the Englishman which helped India beat a stronger opponent.

Structural problems affecting Indian football

While Constantine has lost five of his six World Cup qualifiers in the 2nd round, most of those defeats can be attributed to the structural defects in the Indian domestic game.

National team camps have been cancelled because of a faulty calendar, players have been come into crucial games under-prepared and short of match fitness.

The SAFF Suzuki Cup saw India missing quite a few players due to lack of fitness. To make matters worse, two players, Mandar Rao Desai and Romeo Fernandes, felt they were too good for the national team, and didn't show up.

It's a travesty that Constantine has had to work under these circumstances; but given the limitations, he has done a commendable job so far. Results may not have been as per expectations, but there are bigger problems than the results on the field, and unless the cracks are covered, there is little Constantine can do.

Focus on the Asian Cup

It is no secret that World Cup qualification was never on the agenda for India. The Blue Tigers are at least a couple of decades away from aiming for participation at football's showpiece event, and at present, qualification for the AFC Asian Cup is a more realistic target.

The continental event will be expanded to 24 teams from 2019, giving India realistic hopes of qualification. There is no doubt that Constantine's target at present is UAE 2019.

India will need to get through a playoff round to make it to the 3rd qualifying round for the Asian Cup, and that is where Constantine should be judged.

The head coach has delivered a perfect response to his critics with the SAFF Suzuki Cup triumph, and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) must make sure that changes are brought in to give him his best shot with the team.

Bhargab Sarmah

Bhargab Sarmah @BhargabSarmah