Review: From Delhi to The Den: The Story of Football’s Most Travelled Coach by Stephen Constantine 

The autobiography of the Indian national football team’s coach reveals he is a stubborn case who will not back down in the face of the most daunting challenges

books Updated: Oct 26, 2017 19:55 IST
Vivek Menezes
Vivek Menezes
Hindustan Times
Under-17 FIFA World Cup,Owen Amos,Stephen Constantine
Indian football team with coach Stephen Constantine (in black).

Even by the abysmal standard of Indian sports, the men’s national football team is a disappointment. Despite enjoying huge popularity second only to cricket, the beautiful game yields disastrously ugly results for this nation of 1.2 billion. Since FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) began ranking its members in 1992, India has mostly dropped straight downwards, eventually bottoming out at 171 in the world in 2014. It’s no laughing matter. A few years ago, while honouring India’s 1956 football team, which beat Australia to finish fourth at the Melbourne Olympics, then sports minister MS Gill seriously told the bemused septuagenarians, “Even now you may beat the current team by two goals.”

From Delhi to The Den: The Story of Football’s Most Travelled Coach; Stephen Constantine with Owen Amos; deCoubertin Books

Enter Stephen Constantine. Back in the country for his second stint as the national coach, this 55-year-old England-born football lifer has produced a string of winning performances against the same kind of minnows which used to regularly trip up India: Laos, Bhutan, Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Macau. Now the “Blue Tigers” have risen to 105 in the FIFA world rankings. Better still, for the first time since 1984, India secured direct qualification to the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup finals to be played in the UAE next year. With forgivable hyperbole (considering India regularly beat China, Japan and Korea in the 1950s and 60s), the jubilant coach told the press, “This has got to be one of the best teams in Indian Football if not the best. This is not just our success, this is a success of the whole country.

Indian Football team players Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu with coach Stephen Constantine at a press conference in Guwahati. (PTI)

Even as Constantine spoke, the Under-17 FIFA World Cup got underway in India for the first time, with the hosts automatically included for matches against the USA, Ghana and Colombia. Though it was a typically haphazardly selected team, for the first time in many decades you could compare India’s own against some of the best in the world. The locals fought impressively hard, and hung tough. Now it doesn’t seem so outlandish the senior squad could take another leap up the rankings, perhaps into the top 50. If that improbable feat does occur, it seems likely Stephen Constantine will be the one who makes it happen. As we learn from ‘From Delhi to The Den: The Story of Football’s Most Travelled Coach’ (deCoubertin Books), his autobiography written with Owen Amos, this extremely stubborn hard case will not back down in the face of even the most daunting challenge.

In today’s era of celebrity coaches in Armani suits, Constantine is an old school throwback who trudged a difficult path to his current job. Described (somewhat dubiously) by his own book as “football’s most travelled manager”, he has previously served the national teams of Nepal, Malawi, Sudan and Rwanda, which means (more reliably) he’s coached more countries than any other Englishman. Via email from Washington DC, where he works as a feature writer for the BBC website, his 33-year-old co-author told me, “The biggest lesson from Stephen’s life is: always persevere. He has had many periods out of work, when he has struggled to pay the bills. Now he is enjoying the biggest success of his career and he is taking a country of one billion people to a major finals. He deserves this success and this recognition, and I think it’s only the beginning.”

Coach Stephen Constantine watches Bhaichung Bhutia practice in Jamshedpur in this file photo. (Subhankar Chakraborty/HT Photo)

It is an unlikely story. Constantine was born in England, but moved to his father’s native Cyprus after his mother died. Already committed to the game he loves above all else, he received only parental discouragement, “You’ll never make a living playing football’ he told me, over and over again.” So he left home, and began living by his wits. A local team “got me a job in a hotel; first as a doorman, then by the pool. I was 16 years old, and football had saved me.” After trying and failing to make it as a player in the UK system, he headed to the USA, where “I turned from a boy to a man”, and after some hopeful moments was again thwarted in his attempts to become a professional. “When most football managers were twenty, they played the game for a living. Me? I pumped gas at a petrol station near La Guardia airport in New York.”

From that point on, it has been an extraordinary grind for Constantine, who quite proudly bears a chip on his shoulder for having taken a harder route to coaching success because he wasn’t blessed with a fancy playing pedigree. He earned the highest international qualifications available, and “spent hours by the fax machine, typing in numbers…and sending my CV everywhere from Aruba to Zimbabwe. I tried every full-time club in the UK and the US, every English-speaking national association, and most of the non-English ones, too.” Over the years, this ultimate survivor came to see it all in the world of football: corrupt referees, match-fixing, crooked officials, pitch invasions, and bullet casings on the field of play.

Coach Stephen Constantine, star striker Jeje Lalpekhlua (L) and newcomer Udanta Singh at a press conference ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Turkmenistan in Kochi in March 2016. (PTI)

What does it take to keep on ticking, for this coaching “nomad”? There are some interesting rationalizations. About coaching Sudan, even as the army carried out horrific ethnic cleansing in Darfur (for which President al-Bashir was indicted for crimes against humanity and genocide at the International Criminal Court) he writes, “Was there a moral question mark over my job? Honestly, I didn’t think so. People want to eat, educate their children, and – in some cases – watch football. How does boycotting Sudan help an ordinary family in Khartoum? Do they, like everyone else, not deserve the best possible team? Do they not deserve a 90-minute escape? I accept it’s not black and white…But football is a wonderful game which unites people around the world, wherever they come from. It doesn’t belong to presidents. It belongs to the people, regardless of race, colour or creed. That’s who I work for.”

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It is precisely this kind of refreshing, no-holds-barred candour that makes Constantine’s book such an interesting and valuable view into the innards of the international football machine. There must be many things the co-authors held back but it is to their credit so much more is laid wide open, including the coach’s detailed accounting of each salary he was paid, as well as the grudges he still bears against individuals who did not live up to his standards. I was surprised and saddened to read these include mercurial young Goan wingers, Mandar Rao Desai and Romeo Fernandes, who got caught up in a tawdry maelstrom over the ISL Final in 2015 and missed the subsequent India camp, “neither of them will be picked any time soon. Their complete lack of respect for the team, and the country, was – in short – a disgrace.”

Another reason to be grateful to Constantine is his straightforward truth-telling about the glitzy high profile ISL, which has mainly served to kill off the existing football structure, to the benefit of only television ratings. After returning to coach India in 2015, he swiftly discovered “the ISL outranked [us]…you can’t have a league that doesn’t work in sync with the national team.” What is more, it is “a slow, one-paced league” and “mainly because of the ISL, we had no games between September 2016 and March 2017. While the rest of the world played, we missed two FIFA dates in October and November. India needs to play whenever we can. If we don’t, the team goes backwards. The sooner we have one league, with breaks for internationals, the better.”

First Published: Oct 26, 2017 19:51 IST