Asian Cup 2019: Football's greatest nomad puts India on the map
Stephen Constantine is hoping to deny UAE and secure passage to knockout stages
He has been called The Patron Saint of Lost Causes. But on Sunday, Stephen Constantine led India's footballers to their first victory in an Asian Cup for more than half a century. The 4-1 mauling of Thailand was so decisive that the opposing coach was sacked within hours of the final whistle.
Avoid defeat on Thursday against the UAE in Abu Dhabi, and India, written off as no-hopers before the tournament, will almost certainly reach the knock-out stages.
It would be perhaps the crowning achievement to date in one of football’s most unorthodox careers.
Constantine, who was born in London, has been repeatedly passed over for jobs in his home country. But he has taken charge of Malawi, Rwanda, Nepal and Sudan. This is his second spell as India's head coach.
“People didn’t expect us to win, never mind win 4-1,” he said, speaking to The National 36 hours after the historic opening victory. “I think any Indian that can get the time off, or get there after work, is going to try and get to the game against the UAE.
“To get to the knockout stages would be massive. Whatever happens, we’re already overachieved. I’m extremely proud of the players.”
There are already signs that the win against Thailand has sparked a surge in enthusiasm for the sport among Indians, with tickets for tonight’s game in their section selling faster than in the host nation’s stand.
In this stint, Constantine has been in charge of India since 2015, but his contract runs out on January 31. He said he is looking forward to spending time with his family after the tournament finishes, admitting they have paid a price as he became one of football’s great nomads, his career spanning four continents.
He lives in Delhi, while his wife Lucy and teenage children Christiana and Isabel are based in Cyprus. Their eldest daughter, Paula, is at university in England.
“It’s tough,” he says, of the time apart. “For this particular stint it’s been six years that I’ve not lived in my own house.”
The security situation in some of the countries where the 56-year-old has taken jobs, as well as his daughters’ schooling, meant it was not practical for the family to travel together. While he was manager of Sudan, between 2009 and 2010, the country was on the brink of another conflict. He coached in Iran shortly after 9/11, despite the British government warning against it, and recalls being rewarded by being sung 'Happy Birthday" in Farsi.
“I wouldn’t say I’m reckless,” he said, asked whether he has ever felt in danger during one of his overseas postings. “I’ve just always thought, ‘what’s anyone going to want to do with me? I’m just a coach.’ But there were a couple of times in Sudan …”
He describes embarking on a four-hour drive to Hasahisa, four hours from Khartoum, for a scouting mission. When the president of the Sudanese FA learnt of the trip, he ordered his coach to turn back declaring the journey unsafe.
“I’d seen this boy play in an away fixture and I thought he looked quite useful,” Constantine explains. “I thought I’d see him in his home environment.” Ignoring his boss, he ordered the driver to carry on.
“About 20 minutes later this lorry pulls up, and fix or six guys with fully loaded rifles tell me to get out the car. I thought I was in trouble. It turned out they were the local police, who escorted me to the stadium.
“And it was all for a left back. But I picked him for the national team.”
While he will not be drawn on what happens after the tournament, some have seen this Asian Cup as Constantine’s swansong with India. It is clear that he would like the opportunity to manage in England, if the right offer comes in.
“I would like to go to the Championship [the second tier of English football],” he said. “But if I had to go to League 1 [the third tier] I don’t have any issues with that.”
He has placed no limit on his own ambitions, believing his meticulous preparation and dedication, as well as motivational skills, would allow him to work in the world’s top leagues.
Every morning, he is delivered a spreadsheet with data on each India players’ sleep quality, mood and motivation levels, as well as muscle measurements.
Asked what his ultimate ambition is, Constantine requests a call on his mobile phone. His ringtone is the anthem of the Champions’ League, Europe’s elite club football competition, the territory of the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
But if success and recognition in Europe is the ultimate aim, he will not sit waiting by the phone for too long if India allow his contract to expire. He is, after all, on the record as saying he would take the North Korea job if he was out of work.
“When I left Millwall [a London team where he spent one season as first team coach] I could have stuck around in England, I may have found something in League One, League Two, even in the conference. But an opportunity came up to go to Malawi, and I thought ‘yup, I’ll do that’. A national team? You’ve got to be kidding me.
“Growing up as a kid in North London, what do you want to do? You want to play for the Arsenal and you want to play for England. Then, reality sets in and you realise you’re not going to play for England or Arsenal.
“But imagine playing for England, or coaching England, what a feeling that must be. Imagine what it’s like for a national association from a different country to ask you, a foreigner, to coach their national team. The responsibility becomes greater. Having represented five nations is huge, it’s difficult to put it in to words.
“I don’t care about your race, your religion, your colour. For me it’s just football. On my staff I have Australians, a Norwegian, a Brazilian and Indians. You can have chemistry with someone who is not from the same world as you.”
Updated: January 10, 2019 10:37 AM