An Englishman you’ve never heard of who carries the football hopes of a nation of one billion people? That’s Stephen Constantine, as Dan Brennan explains
If the FA’s decision to make the FIFA Pro Licence a mandatory qualification is set to send managers up and down the country scrabbling for their revision notes, one man who won’t be suffering pre-exam nerves is Stephen Constantine. On paper, at least, Constantine is probably the most qualified British coach around. The FIFA A Licence and Full Badge Licence already feature on a managerial CV that runs to several pages, and he expects the Pro Licence to follow. At 40 he is one of the youngest coaches to sit on the FIFA instructors’ panel and is the only Englishman.
Despite all this, Constantine has never held a senior managerial job in England and the chances are you’ve never heard of him. In south Asia, however, he is something of a cult figure. Two years ago, as national coach of Nepal, his achievements earned him the Probal Gorkha Dakshin Baahu (the local equivalent of an OBE) having steered the team to the South Asian Federation Cup final, something akin to Liechtenstein reaching the European Championship final. And last June, after a brief stint coaching the Bournemouth youth team, he returned to the sub-continent to take charge of the Indian national side. Already, he has won Asia’s LG Cup – the first time the trophy has gone to a team from outside south-east Asia in 32 years – and when he arrived, India hadn’t played a competitive game for two years. In terms of silverware, you could argue that he is the most successful English-born national team coach since Alf Ramsey.
Constantine is not a nomad by choice. Given the chance, he would have spent last season helping Tranmere out of a relegation scrap. He has applied for a number of vacancies back home, yet has failed to land a single interview. Given the turnover of managers and the apparent dearth of quality in this department, this seems somewhat startling. Constantine, though, is no longer surprised. “With my qualifications and experience I should have no problems getting a job, but these things just aren’t respected in England.”
Instead he finds himself venturing into the Axis of Evil. India recently returned from Pyongyang, where they faced North Korea in an Asian Cup qualifier.“It was certainly one of the odder places I’ve had to visit. There were 40,000 in the stadium, all in Mao suits, and it was deathly silent. The only time they made any noise was when they scored [India lost 2-0].”
Constantine is convinced that in India he has inherited a sleeping giant. While the game exists in the shadow of cricket, he has discovered a huge grass-roots passion for football. Derby matches in Bengal attract crowds of 120,000 on a regular basis. But a mixture of bureaucratic inertia, the protracted stand-off with Pakistan over Kashmir and what he describes as “a general feeling that getting beat didn’t matter” had all conspired to push international football off the agenda.
“Competing with cricket is always going to be tough, but the money is starting to come into Indian football. A couple of years ago Adidas wouldn’t have touched us, but we’ve now got a contract. The company handling the sponsorship and marketing are doing a really good job. One of the key problems, though, is the TV coverage, which is woeful. Decent coverage would help increase interest and create more local heroes.”
Short of winning the World Cup with India, what does he think he has to do to get noticed back home? “It’s simple – all I need is to pull on a shirt for a league side, so I can say I was a pro, even if it was just for ten minutes. As soon as you can say that people look at you differently.” Constantine’s playing career comprised stints with the youth teams at Millwall and Chelsea, and semi-professional football in Cyprus and the United States, where he started out on the coaching trail. After that he spent several years managing in Cyprus, winning promotion to the top division with Apep FC in his first season and then the league and cup double with AEL in 1997.
None of which helps him back home. “I recently ran into Theo Paphitis. He’d never heard of me but was curious, especially as I’m half Greek. He seemed genuinely interested in what I’d achieved, but basically said he could never take a risk on me because nobody knew who I was – he was worried how the fans would respond.”
Constantine has applied for a whole series of vacancies – QPR, Tranmere, Wigan, Torquay and Barnet among others. In several cases – despite the fears of Paphitis et al – he came top of the fan polls. Given he is hardly a well known name, this might seem surprising. But denied institutional backing, Constantine has become something of an expert in DIY public relations. He has a website flagging up his credentials and achievements (www.stephenconstantine.com) and has agreed to go online with the fans for live Q&A sessions to argue his case – a prospect that many more high-profile names would baulk at.
There are, of course, signs that things are changing top down. But it has taken the arrival of a couple of Frenchmen – a former part-time pro and an ex-teacher – to challenge old prejudices. “Wenger and Houllier were hardly world-beaters as players, yet as coaches they have acquired guru status and it is well earned. They’ve got where they are by learning their trade over many years. Coaching is a very specific art. In France nobody criticised them for not playing at the top level – because their skills are recognised and respected.
“It’s absurd that someone like Carlton Palmer can walk straight into a managerial job with absolutely no experience. I don’t blame him for taking the job at Stockport, but the system has to be questioned. Look at Kevin Keegan – is he qualified to be a manager? By his own admission he wasn’t qualified to manage England; but he’s not exactly been a success with the club teams he’s managed either. It’s not enough to have charisma, you need tactical and management skills. And what about Alan Ball? Every one of his sides has been relegated. We have been living in the dark ages.”
For the moment, Constantine will just have to make do with international management. In addition to the senior side, he looks after the Under-17s, U19s and U21s, and could be allowed a rueful smile at the sort of headaches faced by his England counterpart. For one, working in a country with a caste system and so much regional diversity puts club v country rows and club-based tribal loyalties firmly in perspective.
“I’ve had a number of players come to me and say, ‘If it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t be here,’ meaning they were not of the right caste or from the right region. When I took over I held a press conference making it quite clear these things didn’t interest me, that players would be picked on merit and I wouldn’t tolerate interference. It seems to have done the trick – I think a lot of people viewed it as a breath of fresh air.
“When I arrived there was a bit of a regio-nal divide, with Calcutta boys in one camp and Bombay boys in another. I’ve insisted on mixing it up and we now do everything together [the team had just returned from their latest bonding session – a trip to Bombay to watch Bend it Like Beckham]. A lot of things needed shaking up. There was also a culture of complacency – once you were in the squad, you were safe for five years. I’ve been happy to drop some of the old guard and not afraid to pick 17-year-olds if they are good enough.”
One problem he doesn’t face is indiscipline. “You’d never have a problem with an Indian player going on the piss the night before a match, though they are partial to a traditional Indian breakfast – very tasty, but not ideal in dietary terms. There is a strong sense of collective responsibility and respect in Indian culture, which is a big advantage for me. Having said that, the other day they all went shopping without telling me. I fined them 30 quid each – a lot of money here.”
Sven-Göran Eriksson would surely be envious of the extent to which Constantine has been given a chance to help restructure domestic football. “I’ve been asked to come up with a plan for a new format from next season. The domestic system here is very complicated. As well as the national league, there are also regional state leagues, which are important because they generate money for the different state governments. Then, as well as various national cups, you have a state cup as well. It means a lot of fixtures and a lot of travelling – trekking several thousand miles for an away game is no joke. I’ve proposed a scheme for streamlining the fixture schedule, and playing the main cup – the Federation Cup – during two weeks at the end of the season. That would make a lot of sense and make things a lot better for the national team.”
Constantine is still optimistic his achievements and experience will eventually receive due recognition closer to home, but doesn’t expect to be taking route one back to Blighty. “I’m a firm believer that hard work pays off. I’ve still got plenty to learn, but if things continue to go well with India, then I think another opportunity in Asia might come along. Beyond that, given existing attitudes, western Europe remains a more realistic possibility than England.
“My wife complains I’m a total chameleon and that I’d change my skin colour and religion for the sake of my job. She’s probably got a point. The other month I turned up at a game in a tie in the Indian national colours. The crowd went wild. When I see things like that it makes me realise how lucky I am. I might not be coaching a top European club, but this kind of experience is unique.”
From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month