Should Stephen Constantine pull it off, the senior India football team could tour the USA on work for the first time this August. Sunil Chhetri and his mates could play between three and five games including international ties in a country that is a favoured pre-season destination of top European clubs.
“I had gone last September to the USA in a personal capacity to see some friends who are obviously involved in football and I really wanted to see how things are progressing in the US, having lived there for 10 years in the past. The progress there is really amazing especially in the MLS (Major League Soccer) and the USL (United Soccer League) where you have 20 and 29 teams now in their respective leagues,” the India national coach, Constantine, told Hindustan Times.
“During this visit, I came up with the idea to try and play some games there and give visibility to our Indian players so there have been a few emails and plenty of phone calls. We are moving in the right direction... The general idea is we will play two-three games against some MLS and USL clubs and also one or two internationals… I think it would be a great experience for our players,” Constantine said.
“Why not have some Indian players in the MLS or the USL,” said Constantine. So far, only Sunil Chhetri has done that, joining the Kansas City Wizards in 2010, but to say the experience wasn’t good would be understating the obvious. As of now, goalie Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is the only India player in a top league abroad. Sandhu plays for Stabaek Fotball in the Norwegian top tier. Getting players to move to stronger leagues is the best way to improve the standard of the national team that is 162nd on the latest Fifa rankings’ list.
Set going in 1993, MLS is the top league in North America with 20 teams, 17 from the USA and three from Canada. Former England internationals Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard play in the competition that runs from March from October as does Italian World Cup winner Andrea Pirlo. It is a closed league, meaning there is no promotion or relegation.
The 29-team United Soccer League (USL) is the third tier of North American league football, below the MLS and the North American Soccer League. It is also a closed league that runs from March to September.
This March, India play two matches in the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers. They host Turkmenistan on March 29 five days after playing Iran away. With three points from six games, India are at the bottom of the five-team group but the win against Guam has done a world of good to the chances of qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup finals.
“Barring suicide, we should make it to the Asian Cup qualifying round,” said Constantine during the East Bengal-Aizawl FC I-League match here last Friday. The qualifiers are scheduled for June 2 and 7 with a second round in September. But with Indonesia and Kuwait suspended, a second round may not be needed.
Should India, therefore, go past the June qualifiers, they could get into the final round of qualifiers, at a yet unannounced date, that will choose the remaining 12 teams for the 24-team Asian Cup finals in 2019 in the United Arab Emirates. It was under national coach Bob Houghton (2006-11) that India last qualified for the Asian Cup after a gap of 27 years, in 2011.
Exposure trips and long preparatory camps are especially important for a developing football nation such as India. “It is not that the head coach of the senior national team wants the boys for preparatory camps ahead of international games because he has nothing to do. It is because the level of international games is so much higher than that of the I-League,” said Constantine.
Speaking to Hindustan Times last January, India U-17 World Cup head coach Nicolai Adam had made the same point while talking about the detailed preparation plan in the run-up to the 2017 under-17 World Cup. In that context, Adam, who is from Germany, had also said: “I know there are good coaches, qualified coaches in India but they don’t have the network (to organise friendlies and exposure trips). That is part of your value.” And should those relationships be nurtured by the All India Football Federation, it will be like leaving a legacy, said Adam.
It could be an important point in the debate of why foreign coaches are needed to give football in India a leg up.