Playing a team ranked 184th in the world is surely not an ideal way to prepare for a match against Asia’s best. But that’s the unpleasant situation India
coach Stephen Constantine
finds himself in, as India
gear up to face mighty Iran in their Group D 2018 World Cup
/2019 Asian Cup joint qualifier next month.
The Blue Tigers will play Nepal in a friendly match on August 31 as a precursor to the Iran tie. The teams were locked in a two-legged World Cup pre-qualifying earlier this year, where India emerged winners. Since then, a lot has changed for both sides. Constantine’s honeymoon period with India seems to be over following consecutive defeats in the qualifiers, including the humiliating 2-1 loss to tiny Guam.
Nepal, on the other hand, were shaken by a massive earthquake, which claimed hundreds of lives. The football stadium in Kathmandu was severely damaged while the players were left to grapple with personal losses. When the friendly was confirmed, FIFA were quick to step in and pat the back of All India Football Federation (AIFF) for ‘supporting’ their distressed neighbours.
But from football perspective, it hardly makes sense. Nepal were not AIFF’s first choice opponent as well. However, reluctance of higher-ranked nations to travel to India meant they had to make do with the situation. It is learnt that India were close to finalising a match with Trinidad and Tobago, a team placed only 15 places below Iran. However, the defeat to Guam changed it all.
“There were options playing against higher ranked teams but seeing that we are playing a home game, we wanted to play at home while those teams wanted to play at their home. So it didn’t materialise. Under such circumstance, it’s good we played some close to our ranking,” Constantine said in an interview recently.
The Englishman conceded his side were at a huge disadvantage going into the Iran tie because of the lack of competitive football. Quite a few players in the squad for the Iran tie haven’t played a match since May 31, when the I-League concluded while the others haven’t played since June. It’s a matter of huge concern for Constantine.
“You need to remember that prior to the match against Nepal, most of the national team players have not played a competitive game since June 2015 (against Guam) while the others have not played since May 31, 2015, i.e., the completion of the I-League. So for some players, its more than two months while for the rest, it’s almost or even more than three months. The national team is at a huge disadvantage,” Constantine said.
The Indian team will begin a fortnight-long camp in western city of Pune from August 24. It’ll be an important period for the team which is going through a transitional phase. In the four matches he has been in charge since being appointed the coach, Constantine has handed debuts to as many as 13 players.
The huge gulf of class between the domestic league and international football has caught the players off-guard, which has reflected in the way team performed in the opening two Group D matches against Oman and Guam. Constantine is under no illusion of the challenge that awaits him and accepted that the road ahead is tough. “The road for us is as tough as I had expected it to be. There is a huge difference between the standard of the domestic leagues to international football,” he said.
“I have made many changes to the philosophy of the team to the type of training that we do including introducing many bright new prospects into the squad. But at the same time, they also need time to adjust to the pace and the level of international football,” the 52-year-old added.