BY STUART HOWARD-COFIELD
News broke last May that, following a stint as assistant manager to Lawrie Sanchez at Apollon Smyrni in Cyprus, Stephen Constantine was to become the Head Coach of the Rwandan national football team. Less than a year on, the globetrotting coach has taken over as head coach of India’s national team—for a second time.
Such is the makeup of the 52-year old’s coaching career that barely an eyebrow will have been raised in the industry at either appointment. After all, Constantine has coached five national sides and several football clubs in places such as Nepal, Cyprus, and Malawi—as well as his previous stint in India.
He has met kings and faced baying mobs, been threatened with kidnapping and been warned to stay off the streets by the British Embassy.
Just prior to moving back to take up the hot seat in India for a second time, Stephen very kindly gave up some of his time to discuss his career. In previous interviews, he has always been at pains to state that he is interested only in the football – not what is going on religiously or politically.
In his own words, he is “quite happy to do the jobs that nobody else wants.” Upon speaking to Stephen, it is clear that his strong sense of focus has not slipped.
When asked if he saw himself as a football missionary, the reply was short. And emphatic:
“No, I just love what I do.”
As candid and straightforward an answer as that is, its brevity didn’t offer much hope as to how forthcoming Stephen might be for any more of my questioning. I needn’t have worried.
Can you tell me more about Rwanda – most people are aware of the problems the country faced in the 90s but for large parts of the general public, that is the only real knowledge of the country (as highlighted by a chance meeting Constantine had with Roy Hodgson at King’s Cross station last year, which revealed that the England boss’s geography was not quite up to scratch).
Rwanda is one of the cleanest and greenest countries I have been to. The people are very warm and have been very welcoming, it is a really great place to live.
I think every country has their own history, good and bad. What happened in Rwanda will, of course, never be forgotten but the steps the country has made since have been remarkable.
Stephen took over as national team manager in May 2014. At that time, Rwanda were coming off the back of a run of 17 games in which they had lost eleven and won only once. Looking long-term, his stated aim was to build a team that could be competitive in the African Nations Championship (CHAN) in 2016—a tournament that Rwanda are to host.
His impact was swift, however, and he got much more than he had planned for. Unexpected wins over Libya and Republic of Congo put Rwanda into the qualification stage of the Africa Cup of Nations.
However, in August 2014 would bring news that would leave Rwanda and Constantine reeling.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) found that striker Dady Birori—who had scored a hat-trick in the first round qualifier against Libya—was ineligible to play for Rwanda. Birori had played under a different identity, and with a Congolese passport for his club side.
CAF struck off Rwanda’s victory over Republic of Congo in the second round of qualifiers and The Wasps were disqualified. Their ACN qualification dream was over.
There must be a great feeling of bitterness following the country’s disqualification? Can you describe some of the events from the high of qualifying to the loss of your appeal against the decision?
Professionally and personally for me it was a massive blow, I am still very upset by the whole issue. We deserved to go through, of that there is no doubt; the appeal was a farce in my opinion— as was the initial complaint. The player in question had played for the National team for 5 years!
The African Nations Championship (CHAN) comes to Rwanda this year – all your focus must be on that now. The tournament differs from the Cup of Nations because only home-based players participate – has that caused any issues? Do you have many Rwandan players based abroad? Are there players under your tutelage ready to break out?
My focus was always on CHAN. We have two players that are playing abroad—one in Tanzania and one in Belgium, so no issues, Rwanda is a team made up of home grown players. We have a number of players who could make it, hopefully they get their break.
Did you have much time to explore the country?
I had too much down time in Rwanda and that is a problem for me, not enough work with the players or games and well, I hate sitting about waiting on other people to do something. Things move very slowly in Africa and it takes a while to get a decision made – so very frustrating at times.
The experience with the gorillas was amazing and it was a surreal feeling to be that close to such an amazing creature, we hiked about an hour and half up the side of the volcanoes and you are not sure what to expect but it was, well, brilliant. I had just over an hour with them and sitting there watching them and moving with them was…words fail me…..the whole trip was excellent.
As can be seen from your time in Rwanda, differing cultures, mind-sets and infrastructures can bring their own difficulties to the job. Your time in Malawi, for instance, was beset by organisational problems. Players’ sleeping arrangements were just one aspect that you had to upgrade.
As a coach, you don’t stay too long when people are trying to tell you what to do or how to do it.
I guess the first time that comes up, I am out the door.
The problem with many associations is the off the field issues, lack of organisation, and the day to day running of the association. I have been in associations who really want to move on and do something then you have others who just want to do what they want regardless of the effects it has on the team.
You have mentioned in the past the vulnerability of some players who are susceptible to being manipulated by outside influences. Is this a very real problem you have encountered?
Yes, sadly it is.
Some of your experiences have been a little extreme, I imagine a lot of people would come running home at just a fraction of what you have endured. What has been the worst?
There have been many situations where by I have wondered what am I doing here and how am I going to get out of this mess, but at the end of the day, I feel privileged to be able to make a living coaching football and that there are so many others in a much worse situation than I am.
The threat of being kidnapped, standing in front of 60,000 fans screaming at you telling you they’re going to kill you because you represent a country they hate, being told to stay off the streets by your own embassy as they could not guarantee my safety.
Being stared down by a hippo was frightening, the list is endless. The worst? One of the most recent – being less than a foot away from the Silverback Gorilla in Rwanda!
And can you pick the best?
I think being decorated by the King of Nepal will stay with me forever and a day. Winning the LG Cup with India, taking Nea Salamina from the bottom of the second division to 6th in the 1st division was amazing, being coach of the Year for English manager abroad, qualifying Rwanda to the AFCONS, taking Rwanda to 62nd in the FIFA rankings has been incredible. I hope that there is much more to come!
It is often said that more British players and managers ought to gain experience abroad, yet few do. Do you believe the experiences would help?
I think if you are playing or managing at home close to friends and family and you are doing well, then you are less likely to move abroad. It is a great experience and going outside your comfort zone, for me, just adds to your own qualities.
Learning new things, seeing new things is part of life, and for me, the more experience you have the better you can become as a coach and as a person.
Roy Hodgson is an example of a coach that worked extensively abroad but eventually “came home” – are you looking to do same? If the right job came up in England, would you be back?
Honestly? I am happy being abroad and I have no problem staying abroad. If the right job did come up in the UK then, yes, I would of course consider it. Just as I would if a job came up anywhere in the world.
The success you have had across the world – and the vast improvements made in places like India, Nepal and Cyprus – under extreme pressures at the time – are testament to your success. Do you wonder why more high profile clubs have not sought you out? Do you mind?
Yes I think I have proved that I can do a job anywhere in the world. For sure, I would love the opportunity to go somewhere I have all the support and not worry about almost everything to do with the team. Through all this though the main thing is I am able to do what I love and hopefully one of these days I get my chance.
What level would constitute the right job?
For me it is not necessarily about levels in terms of Premier League, Championship, and so on. It is more about the challenge. Where is the club? What do they want? Is there a vision and does that coincide with what I want.
I love building teams laying foundations and getting young players to break through. I honestly feel that I can do a job for anyone at any level anywhere in the world.
Is there anything that is different about your coaching approach to the way others work? A lot of your skills must be motivational and man-management, asking players to play through periods without pay, poor facilities etc?
I don’t think I do anything too different from anyone else. I have been to see top managers and coaches: some very good ones, and some very ordinary ones, who are at the top level. But for me coaching is personal – no two sessions are exactly the same.
How I coach a session and how anyone else does a session will be different because of the personality of the coach delivering it. The other point is that the players have to be on board and believe that they will improve.
I think I can improve any player in the world as do most coaches; the key here is if the player wants to.
I think as coach you are a motivator and man-manager at any level, when you are working with players who are making 10k a week, 100k a week, or nothing: your motivation is going to be different, as is theirs.
All I will say is that I will always try to be sympathetic to the players and try and help them as much as possible, because at the end of the day, they are the ones that are going to do the work on the pitch. I always say give me everything you have and I will give you everything back.
How have your family coped with the globetrotting?
As a family we are based in Cyprus, it’s a great place to live with good schools and globally quite central. It is tough on all of us; we travelled all together when the girls were younger but they really need to be settled because they have school friends and consistency in their lives.
In my job you never know for sure how long you are going to stay in the job so it would be unfair to keep moving them, but it is difficult especially for my wife who is alone with the girls and, of course, that’s not easy.
You obviously live, eat and sleep football. Can you tell me your greatest game, favourite player and goal (from any – those coached or in the history of football!!)
Wow, easy question. Not!!
I loved Graeme Souness, Yaya Toure, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp.
My favourite moment was when Abhishek Yadav came on as sub in the 88th minute and scored to win us (India) the LG Cup against Vietnam. Beating Congo on penalties to qualify for the AFCONS, beating Apoel Nicosia with Salamina (Apoel went to the last eight that year in the Champions League)
Julian Gray scored a wonder-strike against Anorthosis Famagusta. Beating Libya 3-0 in my first home game here in Rwanda.
Getting the Indian players to swap shirts with Pakistan was a great moment.
Can you expand on that moment?
It was an impulse thing. The game had been played in Bangladesh and the crowd were baying for our blood. We had fought tooth and nail in the game and we came out winners. I looked over and saw the Pakistani lads totally dejected.
I decided to show them all some respect and our lads were more than willing to do so too. The crowd went mad again—this time for the right reason—and for me we showed some humility and respect to all concerned.
From the highs of moments like that, to the lows of Rwanda’s disqualification. Such incidents define careers.
I can’t describe the disappointment of that disqualification. It still hurts and will for some time to come, I expect. You want to be involved at the top level and play against the big teams, so from a personal career point of view it was tough to take. It is done now and I can’t change the past so I just look forward and hope for better things.
Since we spoke, Stephen left his position with Rwanda and took over once again as India’s national coach. His answers about India showed his passion for the job there.
India is a cricket-mad nation. Due to the vast size of the country and new riches for parts of the population, and with the advent of the ISL, does India have the potential and the infrastructure to become a world force?
India has always had the potential to do something big in football. The ISL have clearly highlighted the fact that Indians are as into their football as they are into cricket. The crowds have been fantastic and the reaction from all Indians has been very positive.
There is nothing India can’t do. Winning the LG Cup showed that Indian players are more than capable of doing something on the International stage. You just really had to get down to what makes a team function. Although some good work was done after my time, I don’t think enough was done.
An extremely busy man, Stephen had given me so much time that I didn’t want to pester him any further. Therefore, in the spirit of the first answer he gave to my questions, following his appointment, I kept it as brief as possible.
How long did it take you to come to the decision to head back to India and what are your hopes for the future?
It took seconds. And I’d like to re-establish the team and regain the respect of Asia.
You would not bet against him doing so. Stephen Constantine fosters a feeling of togetherness in the squads that he manages—he deeply cares about the players who quickly take on the role of his surrogate family for the time he is with them. And despite spending so much time on the road, family still matters.
Topping his list of career highlights and inspirational moments?
My best moment was when I signed my wife Lucy to a very long term contract—and the birth of my three girls. I was at all of them, believe it or not!
Stephen is available through any of the channels below
National Team Head Coach India & U23s
UEFA Pro License Holder & FIFA Instructor