CHENNAI: It was a sight that had been rarely seen in Indian football in recent times. The game was barely an hour old, but their opponents Puerto Rico looked like the final whistle couldn’t come sooner. India on the other hand was buzzing. Tackles were flying in, the men on the flanks were darting about while Sunil Chhetri prowled in the heart of all Indian activity, as though he held the strings to everyone around him, even a couple of opponent players. It was a far cry from Wim Koeverman’s final months in charge when some looked like they were being forced to play football.
Stephen Constantine’s reign has been far from perfect. His decision to field youngsters in the World Cup qualifying, potentially endangering India’s Asian Cup bid, had been subject to much derision. But if India’s wins against Laos and Puerto Rico are any indication, Constantine’s youth policy is finally paying off.
Take India’s starting eleven from the game, for instance. Chhetri and Arnab Mondal were the only first-team faces from the Koevermans era. Bikash Jairu is no youngster, but his India career began under Constantine. Captain on the night was Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, a goalkeeper who did not get a look-in under Koevermans. Jeje Lalpekhlua, Jackichand Singh, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan and Narayan Das were all either 25 or under. Three of India’s four goals came from that group.
It’s not just on the field that Constantine’s focus on youth is showing its effect. The atmosphere in the dressing room and on the training ground has changed, according to India figures. “It’s really different,” said Rino Anto, who was on the bench on Saturday. “Constantine has chosen to work with a group of young players. Over the past year, we have all bonded and become like a family. And with each international game, I think we have grown in confidence as well.”
It was a view that Gurpreet too shared. “I think the mood has become more positive,” he told Express. “People earlier questioned the selection of youngsters in the squad. But this team is for the future and you need to give it time, so that we can build on it. Many youngsters have now experienced international football and have that confidence in them.”
The Norwegian league pro also gave an insight into how youngsters aid Constantine’s training methods. The Englishman had turned up the level of intensity a couple of notches up from what was the case under Koevermans. “We also used to have intensive training sessions under Bob (Houghton) sir with all the senior players,” he said. “But the downside was that players were mostly trying not to get injured.”