| India coach Stephen Constantine flanked by captain Debjit Ghosh (right) and forward Alvito D’Cunha after practice at SAI on Monday. Picture by Santosh Ghosh
Calcutta: Reputations and past laurels are of no consequence to Stephen Constantine. The most fundamental criteria for selection in this Anglo-Cypriot fitness martinet’s book is, well, fitness.
That is where former India captain and Mohun Bagan’s veteran midfielder Basudeb Mondal lost out during the training camp for the SAFF Cup probables. He, along with forward R.C.Prakash and goalkeeper Sandip Nandy will not board the plane when the 20-strong Indian football team leaves for Dhaka on Wednesday. The tournament kicks off on Friday.
While Mondal has been left out because he “couldn’t stay with the game”, the other two can consider themselves unlucky after injuring themselves in a collision on Saturday morning during practice.
According to Constantine, the veteran midfielder came to the camp in “not too good shape and came last in the fitness test”. However, he made it clear that things might have been different had he “got more time at my hands”. Ruing the lack of time, Constantine said five days of preparation for a tournament as important as the SAFF Cup was “regrettable”.
The coach, whose cause has already been hit hard by injuries and the reluctance of clubs to part with players for country, took another pot-shot at the Indian football set-up. “It is very difficult for India’s players to remain fit when they spend two-thirds of their time in trains, buses and aeroplanes.”
However, true to his style, he refused to dwell on what could have been. “Players that are here have worked hard. There are two teenagers and two guys in their early 20s. Obviously, it’s an inexperienced team. We will go there and do our best.”
Constantine added that the absence of a number of top players, would make the SAFF Cup a “tough assignment”.
“The competition will be tough... Bangladesh have the home advantage and will be a difficult opponent. We have to try our best,” Constantine said.
The coach said a victory in the SAFF Cup, which incidentally, would make it a hattrick at the tournament for India, would be more special than the LG Cup win in Vietnam. As Constantine put it, “this is one of the most difficult tasks I have handled. The inexperience and the lack of practice matches will make this victory all the sweeter. “Even if we lose, we will have the satisfaction of having exposed as many as eight to nine youngsters to the international arena,” was how Constantine put it.
Skipper Debjit Ghosh expressed confidence that the side, despite missing the services of some top players, would do well in Bangladesh. “Our fitness was not of the level during the camp in Jamshedpur (prior to the LG Cup), but we have come good during these five days.”
Asked how he felt about the team, Debjit said the defence was “good” and he expected Alvito D’Cunha and the veteran I.M.Vijayan to fill the void upfront left by the injured Bhaichung Bhutia.
Echoing his skipper’s thoughts, D’Cunha said he had combined well with Vijayan and felt no pressure to step into Bhaichung’s boots. He also said that though the formation (3-5-2) would help as East Bengal’s Subhas Bhowmick too favours it, he was “adjusting” well to the slight differences in tactics.
India, who according to Constantine are the “France of the region” start as favourites. They open their league encounters against Pakistan on Friday before taking on Afghanistan next Sunday. They play Sri Lanka on January 14. The semi-finals and final are scheduled on January 18 and 20, respectively.
Goalkeepers: Rajat Ghosh Dastidar (Mohun Bagan), Virender Singh (Punjab Police), Naseem Akhtar (Mahindra United); Defenders: M. Suresh (East Bengal), Debjit Ghosh (Mahindra United), Sameer Naik (Dempo), Roberto Fernandes (Salgaocar), Selwyn Fernandes (Vasco); Midfielders: S. Venkatesh, Subhash Chakrabarty (East Bengal), Abhay Kumar (Salgaocar), Rennedy Singh (Mohun Bagan), Jo Paul Ancheri (JCT), Harvinder Singh (JCT), Jules Alberto (Vasco), Climax Lawrence (Salgaocar); Forwards: Alvito D’Cunha (East Bengal), I.M.Vijayan (JCT), Ashim Biswas (Tollygunge), Abhishek Yadav (Mahindra United).