BENGALURU: India’s football team was at one of its lowest points when the All India Football Federation and its Dutch coach Wim Koevermans decided they had enough of each other, way back in 2014. The pessimism was not entirely down to the fact that the side was losing to pretty much every team that was not named Nepal or Sri Lanka. It was that Koevermans’ team offered no hope for the future. There were no young stars whose potential could get fans excited, no established pro who was one step away from his peak. All the team had was the ageless Sunil Chhetri and a bunch of players who could only get worse from there. The rankings were in the 170s. The future looked bleak.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Koevermans’ last game was less than three years ago, such is the transformation that the Indian national team has gone. Many of Koevermans’ regular starters are nowhere to be seen and the average age of the team has come down drastically. Most of this is down to the man who has replaced him — Stephen Constantine.
On Monday, Constantine announced a list of 34 probables who will train in Chennai for the upcoming Asian Cup qualifiers. Of the 34, only eight players predated his arrival. There might be complaints about his rather uncomplicated playing style and the ‘English’ tactics he often resorts to, but when it comes to blooding youngsters, few can complain against Constantine. When he first arrived, Constantine spoke of the need to expand the national pool. Meticulously, he has done just that.
Case in point is how he travelled with the India U-23 team to Qatar, figured out for himself who was up for the job and who was not. And on Monday, ten of those players made the list of probables. Of those, it’ll be a first senior camp for Sarthak Golui, Davinder Singh, Nikhil Poojary, Anirudh Thapa and Manvir Singh. A clear pathway from the U-23 squad to the senior national team was one thing that was missing under past India coaches. Most of the U-23 side that played under Koevermans in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games is nowhere near national reckoning now. Only three of the 20-member squad (excluding senior players Sunil Chhetri and Robin Singh) are in Constantine’s list of 34.
“I worked with Stephen in his first stint and you could tell then that he was someone with a long term vision,” says former Indian captain IM Vijayan. “He was giving chances to a lot of young players even then, and these were the players who carried Indian football for years. For me, his tenure has been extremely positive.”
It is a view that another former India captain and a successful coach in his own right, Shabbir Ali, agrees with. “Constantine has done well in that regard but the youngsters have made it easier for him. All these players, they are doing well in the I-League and ISL,” he said.
Out of the 34 players who have been called up by Constantine, there’ll be 10 players who donned the National colour in the recently-AFC U23 Championship Qualifiers in Doha.
Vishal Kaith, Lalruatthara, Salam Ranjan Singh, Sarthak Golui, Davinder Singh, Germanpreet Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Sumeet Passi, Nikhil Poojary and Manvir Singh