As the euphoria and joy continue to ebb following a brilliant win for the Indian national team over Thailand in their 2019 AFC Asian Cup opener, head coach Stephen Constantine would be a happy man.
The British coach is in his second stint with India and has had his share of detractors over the course of them. But the 56-year-old has answered them in his inimatable style by masterminding a terrific 4-1 win over Thailand and a brilliant performance.
It is not new ground for the coach though.
He has made his mark in both the stints with India and the Thailand win is just another feather in his cap.
Constantine's initial period in charge of the Blue Tigers began on a brilliant note when he took a young Indian squad (U23) with a few senior players to the LG Cup in Vietnam in 2002. Following a draw against Singapore (U23) and a win over Vietnam U23s, India reached the final with a win over Petrokimia Club of Indonesia
The final would then be won 3-2 in dramatic fashion with Abhishek Yadav coming on as a substitute to grab the winner in the dying minutes. India were 2-0 down initially and Bhaichung Bhutia's brace had restored parity before Yadav made his mark.
It was India's first win in the final of a major tournament in almost 31 years. Interestingly, that was the country's first major win in football in 28 years after the bronze medal win in the 1972 Asian Football Championship. That too, it came in a final and it was away from home.
Now, in his second stint, Constantine has taken the team further. Brushing off criticism over player selections and playing style in his usually quiet manner, the coach helped India qualify for the Asian Cup after a gap of eight years and helped India break into the top-100 of the FIFA rankings.
Now, he stands vindicated after handing the country its first ever win in the Asian Cup since 1964 and its biggest ever in the competition. For, it was his trust in the side's core that has paid off, with the likes of Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathodika, Pronay Halder, Ashique Kuruniyan all impressing.
As the fans and pundits enjoy a glorious win and shower praise on the head coach, Constantine will be smiling to himself. The history-maker has added a new feather to his cap but he would know the job is not done yet. There are two more important games to come against Bahrain and UAE.
And hopefully, further matches in the competition as well.
Stephen Constantine ended his four-year reign as the head coach of the Indian football team following their group-stage exit from the AFC Asian Cup on Monday.
After the Blue Tigers suffered a heartbreaking 0-1 loss against Bahrain at the Sharjah Stadium, Constantine resigned as the team’s coach.
His second stint began in 2015 after he succeeded the Netherlands’ Wim Koevermans. Under Constantine, India did make progress, especially in Fifa world rankings after a string of good results.
A few days ahead of his departure, Constantine had said that football is undergoing a “metamorphosis” in India.
“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. 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.”
Early setback: In his first match after taking charge, Constantine guided India to a 2-0 win against Nepal in the World Cup qualifiers, with Sunil Chhetri scoring a brace. India, then, went through a winless streak of seven matches. They stopped the rut with a 1-0 win against Guam in Bengaluru.
13-match unbeaten streak: India lost their next two matches in the World Cup qualifiers – against Iran and Turkmenistan. But they remained undefeated in their next 13 matches – this phase included a nine-match winning streak. During the unbeaten run, India qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. It also catapulted the Blue Tigers into the top-100 of the Fifa rankings.
SAFF defeat and Intercontinental Cup success: Constantine guided India to the 2018 Intercontinental Cup title. They defeated Kenya 2-0 in the final at the Mumbai Football Arena after Chhetri scored a brace in the first half. Constantine had a chance to win back-to-back titles at the SAFF Championship. As favourites, India registered comfortable wins against Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan. But in the title clash they went down 1-2 to Maldives.
Asian Cup: Constantine’s India got off to a dream start in the Asian Cup with a 4-1 defeat of Thailand, wherein they showcased some thrilling counter-attacking football.
India just needed a point against Bahrain to secure their place in the knockout stages of the tournament. However, they were undone by a stoppage-time penalty. A draw between hosts UAE and Thailand confirmed India’s elimination from the Asian Cup.