What do Christmas cakes, chilly weather, resolutions for the new year and a slew of articles lamenting how unkind the past 12 months have been to Indian football, have in common? Full points, if you answered ‘things that December unfailingly brings every year’.
A lame joke is never a wise idea, but there is perhaps no more fitting way to start an article on Indian football, considering the farcical turns, things often take there. It sometimes appears as illogical as the world Alice saw when she stumbled down the rabbit hole. There are Mad Hatters holding tea parties for no apparent reason, kings and queens shouting ‘off with his head’ for imaginary, yet grave offences, even Tweedledums and Tweedledees waiting to pounce at every nook and corner.For every rabbit hole though, you need an Alice, willing enough to run after the March Hare despite having plenty of more worthwhile things to do, gullible enough to drink all sorts of magic potions without question and patient enough to suffer through the Mad Hatters and the Queens of Hearts. In Indian football, that can only be one man. 2015 will always be the year in which Stephen Constantine fell down the rabbit hole – again!
To fall through a strange hole into a nonsensical world once can be an accident, but to do it twice can only be attributed to carelessness. Constantine was doing fine, this time last year. After leaving India in 2005, he had beneficial stints in England and Cyprus before working miracles with Rwanda, taking the team to within a few wins of the top 50 in FIFA rankings. And then, he disregarded a few centuries’ worth of proverbs and came back to take the India job again.
His second reign started on a decent note with a two-legged win over Nepal and a credible performance against Oman in June. But then started the inevitable unraveling. His players forgot to pack their skills on the long trip to Guam, losing to Asia’s smallest footballing entity. He had his players together for a few weeks in August, but the AIFF had a bagful of excuses ready when it came to hosting some meaningful friendlies in that period, Nepal the only team that turned up. He was then presented a calendar for the upcoming season that was as ridiculous as it was hazardous to the players’ health – ISL, SAFF Cup and the I-League all crammed into eight months with no proper rest period allocated.
With the team facing vital games away to Turkmenistan and Oman, Constantine was denied any opportunity to host a semblance of a training camp, thanks to the ISL, a situation that he faced again a month later when he got access to his players, just three days before the team faced Guam in Bengaluru. “Guam had more training time in Bengaluru than us,” the Englishman had rued then.
Just as Constantine was thinking the worst was behind him with the ISL over, fresh troubles started as he was preparing his team for the SAFF Championships. Bengaluru FC, one of the saner voices in Indian football, decided that their players were better off not attending the national camp, which meant that the likes of Sunil Chhetri and Robin Singh were missing. Then Romeo Fernandes and Mandar Rao Dessai arrived at the conclusion that playing for the national team was not exactly their preferred way of spending Christmas.
“It is not that Constantine is a bad coach. I know, I played under him,” says former India captain IM Vijayan. “Look at what he had to work with. There is no structure in place or a proper calendar in Indian football. The national team does not get enough friendly matches or preparatory camps. Players are prioritising club over the national team, which is something that we would not even dream of doing. There is no clear plan for the future. Bring Alex Ferguson into this mess and the results will be the same.”
The lone bright spot has perhaps been the performances of the U-16 team and the unprecedented levels of exposure that they have been getting as they prepare for the 2017 U-17 World Cup. The first tangible signs of their progress will be visible in 2016 when they take to the field in the Asian U-16 Championships in Goa in September. Indeed, it remains one of the few things Indian football fans can look forward to in 2016, especially with the senior team’s quest for a berth in the 2019 Asian Cup looking increasingly unrealistic with every passing game.
As for Constantine, the impending year promises to be another spent dealing with the Carrollian characters that inhabit the world of Indian football. Or maybe, just maybe, he might wake up one day, and like Alice, find that everything had just been one big nonsensical dream.