Now well into his second spell as coach of the Indian national team, having re-joined in 2015 following a decade-long hiatus, Stephen Constantine admits – after some cajoling – that his accumulated five years in charge have left him with a unique view of football on the vast subcontinent.
With the FIFA U-17 World Cup bound for the nation of more than 1.25bn people, 2017 is a year when the world is set to get a closer look at their relationship with the game too. The action begins on 6 October, with 24 sides from across the globe set to battle it out from New Delhi to Kochi, from Goa to Guwahati, the length and breadth of the country. “It’s a huge honour for India to have the World Cup here, make no mistake about that,” the national coach said.
Through his spells in Nepal, Malawi, Sudan and Rwanda, as well as coaching all around the world through his work as a FIFA Instructor, Constantine has certainly soaked up more than his fair share of football cultures. And over the 15 years since he first took the India role, he has seen changes develop.
“From 2002 to 2017 there has been a difference. The starting of the Indian Super League has put India on the map, due to the coverage and the fanfare,” he explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “That has given people in the country the opportunity to see some very decent players that ordinarily they wouldn’t have had the chance to. From that perspective, the ISL has been very good.”
The appetite for the game is clear on the subcontinent. The ISL saw an average attendance of more than 20,000 last year, just shy of those in Italy’s Serie A and Ligue 1 in France. A fact reflected on the streets and pitches of India with “more young kids playing football than ever before”.
Constantine is frank about the challenges in making the most of what India has. Tying together states that are larger than some European countries – many where football is less organised, without professional teams or their own youth or women’s leagues – is a serious undertaking for the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
However, with development improving in part thanks to the professional league, he thinks that the upcoming U-17 World Cup could help provide the platform and momentum to progress. “A lot of attention has been given to the infrastructure, as it’s not just the stadiums, you need training grounds,” the 54-year-old explained.
“Now, because of the World Cup and because of FIFA, mindsets are changing from including running tracks or stadiums being used for cricket too,” he said. “You want football-specific stadiums and facilities so two, three or four teams can train. You need that for a World Cup, and it means afterwards there will be facilities for teams and people to use. That’s fantastic and is something that’s not happened before. As long as we are able to maintain them, we will start to get the facilities which are sorely needed.
“I think the effect of the U-17 World Cup will be there for years and years to come in terms of the facilities, the training pitches, knowledge about organising a World Cup and how that all comes into play.”
With national U-19 and U-17 leagues having started last year, pitting the top teams from the more active states around the country, and a U-15 equivalent beginning this year, things look to be headed in the right direction.
This is perhaps no surprise when the likes of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are getting behind the tournament and drawing focus towards growing football in the country. “[The U-17 World Cup] alone cannot be our final objective,” he said in January. “[It] must be a catalyst for change, the tipping point for football in the country, which can only be done by creating a mass movement around it.”
It is a conviction that Constantine is buoyed by, and hopes the notion grows into real promise for the future. “When Mr Modi stands up and says we need to pay attention to the first World Cup to be held in India, people need to listen and I couldn’t agree more with what he said,” Constantine reflected.
“We need football to be played in every single school in India. It’s the best game in the world, it’s the most loved game in the world, kids in India love their football but they’re just not getting enough of it.”
Since getting his feet back under the table, the Englishman has seen his side steadily rise up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings, enjoying a jump of more than 40 places to 129th, just shy of his peak when at the helm the first time around. There is certainly scope to continue that climb over the coming 12 months too. Sights are set on reaching the AFC Asian Cup for only the second time in three decades, as they kick off their third-round qualifying group against Myanmar on 28 March, with Kyrgyzstan and Macau in waiting.
While Constantine hopes to see some of the host nation’s charges at the U-17 progress and become a part of senior side, he has plans in mind to help to that become a reality. “We hope the boys can produce a decent enough performance to get out of the group, that would be our first objective. From a senior point of view, hopefully some of these players filter through, but to do that there needs to be a pathway for them; a uniform system from top to bottom, which is what I’m trying to put in place.”