It was hard-fought, laboured win against Guam on Thursday, 12 November, as India managed to grab its first 3 points in the 2nd round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying. The Blue Tigers played the 2nd half with 10 men after midfielder Sehnaj Singh was sent off a few minutes before half time, and managed to fend off a barrage of attacks from the Guam side to register a narrow victory.
For head coach Stephen Constantine, the win came as a major relief, having lost the previous five games in the ongoing round. However, that has done little to ease the pressure from Constantine, who has managed just two wins in his second stint in charge of the Indian national team so far.
The lowest point of the Englishman's reign, so far, came in June, when minnows Guam handed the Blue Tigers an embarrassing 2-1 defeat in Dededo. Just months after inauguration of the Indian Super League brought international attention to Indian football, India suddenly became the laughing stock of the football world.
Constantine has made errors over the last few months. His team selections, at times, have been questionable. Take Debjit Majumder, for instance. The Mohun Bagan custodian was one of the best players in the league last season. Yet, he has not been called up for national team duty yet. On the other hand, Karanjit Singh, who missed almost the entirety of last season owing to a long-term injury, has been selected in Constantine's latest squad.
The head coach has been subject to some very harsh criticism on social media from Indian football fans. The Indian team is destined to finish at the bottom of the group in the current round of World Cup qualifying, and the fans' anger does seem justified at times. However, despite India's struggles so far, Constantine today needs the support of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), if he is to turn things around in the coming months.
National team held hostage by third parties
Last month, India went to crucial World Cup qualifiers in Turkmenistan and Oman with close to no preparation after the ISL franchises refused to release players more than the FIFA-stipulated four days prior to the first game. There was no training camp head of the games, and the results were as expected: India lost both games and were well-below par, in terms of performance, in both the matches.
The Delhi franchise even attempted to release its Indian players three days before the game, one day later than required by FIFA. These events make it amply clear that IMG-Reliance's tournament has little regards for India's footballing interests. It couldn't have been more evident than now. The fact that ISL games went on at the same time India played important FIFA World Cup qualifiers in October, displays the tournament's complete lack of respect for the national team.
Even against Guam, India had considerably less time than the visitors to prepare for the game. In scenarios like these, Constantine has his hands tied. To expect the head coach to dig out results from situations where he has had little say over the preparations for games, it probably is a bit unfair on him, as well as on his team.
The current situation calls for AIFF to step in and make sure that the national team's games are prioritised over the ISL. That, sadly, has not happened so far, and Constantine has been the one bearing the brunt for AIFF's lack of decisiveness with matters relating to the Blue Tigers. The scheduling of both I-League and ISL need to be made keeping in mind the national team's itinerary.
AIFF's fetish for foreign coaches means that the likes of Derrick Pereira have no realistic chance of taking over the reins of the national team in case Constantine does get the sack. In such a scenario, it is difficult to see a better candidate than Constantine when it comes to providing stability to the national team.
The Englishman's previous stint in India means that he is well aware of the ground realities of Indian football. Quite a few things have changed in the last decade during his absence, but if anything, India has only fallen behind in the international footballing ladder. The Indian league system is dying a slow death and the pool of players available for selection for the national team has also come down.
The Indian team's results reflects the complications the head coach has been made to work under. Given the way Indian football is functioning, with AIFF functioning under the directions of marketing partners IMG-Reliance, the national team has suffered due to the governing body's inability to work for the best interests of Indian football.
What next for Constantine and the Indian national team?
The upcoming SAFF Championship in December this year will give a clearer picture of where the Indian national team stands. The Blue Tigers have slipped to 172 in the FIFA World Rankings, and that more or less reflects the team's performances over the course of the year. If Constantine does manage to guide India to a title win, it will buy him some much-needed time in his job.
However, what happens if India fails to regain the sub-continental tournament it last won in 2011? It will be tempting for the AIFF to get rid of Constantine, whom it has failed to support since roping him in earlier this year. The Englishman will be made the scapegoat for a larger set of issues plaguing the Indian game.
The Indian team is in a transitional phase today. The Gouramangis and the Mehtabs have been replaced by the likes of Jhingans and Eugenesons. There is a lot of fresh blood in this side, and if Constantine does go out, it will severely hinder the progress of the current team. The successor will find himself in an unsavoury position, in the middle of a changeover, and the cycle of poor results will most likely continue once again.
If anything, Constantine needs time, and AIFF's support and patience, to drag India out of the abyss it finds itself in today.