Why the ISL is damaging India's national team

Mehr Shadaab 15:57 18/10/2015
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The India national team is struggling on the pitch.

Stephen Constantine did not pay heed to all the warnings thrown at him. Second comings in football, he was cautioned, are seldom successful. But the Englishman, back in India after a rollercoaster ride with Rwanda, was confident he could turn things around.

Ten months on and India have won just one of the eight matches played under Constantine and have suffered five consecutive defeats in the second round of 2018 Russia World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup joint qualification. The world ranking is marginally better – 172 when he took charge, 167 now – but is scant consolation.

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Look at the Indian football scene right now, however, and you’ll hardly see a furrowed brow. While India were getting whipped 3-0 by Oman in Muscat last week (watch below), more than 60,000 fans turned up at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata to watch the match between last year’s Indian Super League finalists Atletico Kolkata and Kerala Blasters. They were also there to try and get a glimpse of visiting Brazil legend Pele.

“It’s strange. You have 62,000 people watching ISL match in Kolkata,” All India Football Federation (AIFF) general secretary Kushal Das explains to Sport360. “It was a pretty good match to watch too. And then you have the Indian team, putting up a pathetic performance. The contrast is so stark that I don’t know what is happening. We have to find out for sure.”

Inadvertently, Das hit the nail on its head. Players who can’t conjure up one meaningful move in India colours are made to look like superstars when they rub shoulders with yesteryear heroes in the ISL. On one hand, you have a national team that does not have a decent training centre, and on the other ISL clubs are jetsetting around the world to train at the best facilities.

Fans now fear that India won’t make the cut for the 24-team Asian Cup in 2019, but the glitz and glamour of the ISL makes it seem all is well. Indian football exists in two parallel worlds. Caught up in this warp is the national team, which has been in freefall for some time now.

It is easy to blame the coach for failing to inspire his players or extract a courageous performance from them. But it is also lazy to solely point fingers at Constantine. One of the reasons the 53-year-old was appointed was that he was aware of the Indian set-up. The Englishman should have known the path would be littered with obstacles.

Before and after each match, Constantine has cut a sorry figure; disillusioned, disgruntled and lonely. His relationship with the AIFF has also deteriorated and the ISL has only added to his frustration. AIFF president Praful Patel recently advised people “not to listen to everything that the coach says.”

In such a scenario, one must sympathise with Constantine. The AIFF’s technical committee is expected to meet soon, a meeting that will have a one-point agenda: to back or sack Constantine. Making the well-travelled Englishman the scapegoat would hardly be a solution to India’s problems, however.

To suggest the ISL is the root of all India’s problems is unfair. The tournament is just one year old and the national team has been in decline for decades. But the ISL has aggravated the issue and distorted the picture. It provides a false sense of progress and delirium when, in truth, Indian football is at “death’s door” – a phrase Constantine has used often in the last few months.

ISL franchises were reluctant to release their players on time for the past two qualifiers, with Delhi Dynamos stating Indian members of the squad were keen to first play their ISL match before joining up with the national team. Constantine was already unhappy that his scheduled national camp had to be cancelled after franchises did not release their players, citing FIFA rules. This, however, was crossing the line. The AIFF stepped in and ensured India’s players joined the team on time.

But it highlighted the misplaced priorities. Even Brazilian great Roberto Carlos, the coach of Delhi, expressed surprise when asked if it was right to conduct ISL matches on the same day as the national team was playing.

“Such kinds of things happen only here,” Carlos said. “In Brazil, when the national squad is going to play, everyone stops playing in the other leagues. The three India players in my squad are very important for me. But I understand they are also very important for the national coach.”

Not only were the players late to join the team, the ISL franchises ensured their players were on the first flight back from Muscat. Barely 24 hours after the World Cup qualifier, players were back in India playing in the ISL. To rub salt in Constantine’s wounds, India striker Robin Singh – who has struggled to get even one shot on target throughout the qualifying campaign – scored a goal with his first attempt for Delhi against Pune City last Wednesday, a day after the Oman defeat.

Constantine says he needs more training time to communicate his ideas to players who he claims lack “football intelligence”. Fitness, too, has been an issue. Indian players seem to be lacking basic match fitness, and have appeared to be out of breath at the hour mark in every match. It’s an area in which Constantine has highlighted a need for improvement, but there has been little progress.

“The lack of training time was visible,” Constantine said after India’s latest loss. “We went into two back to back away matches with just four and half hours of training on the pitch and it took a toll on us. In the second half, we ran out of gas. We came to try and get something out of the game. International football is all about fitness. From the work rate point of view, all my players were excellent but when you don’t have the legs, your technique suffers.”

Ahead of India’s must-win qualifier against Guam in Bangalore next month, Constantine hopes to get at least a week with his players. It’s a match India must win to keep their hopes alive of qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup. But while the ISL is going on, that is unlikely to happen. The India players will continue to be treated like heroes at their clubs but put in underwhelming performances for the national team.

Returning to the side after a first, three-year stint at the helm of India in 2002, Constantine is realizing the hard way that sequels are rarely successful.

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