Coaching an Indian team in any sport can prove to be a taxing experience, especially when the said coach is being introduced to the country through their job. They will first have to adapt to the fact that they have a dressing room in which players homes could be thousands of kilometres away, languages and cultures can be a barrier. Once they get their players and staff on board, they encounter creaking systems and tangles of red tape.
Take what former national hockey coach Roelant Oltmans had to do to get new equipments for the team. "If I need equipments for the team, we have to start with a tender, then people apply for the tender and finally a decision is made. It takes time and the technology gets outdated by then. So you have to start all over again," he had said.
The All India Football Federation has been looking for a new coach for the senior men's team ever since Stephen Constantine chose not to extend his contract following the team's group stage exit from the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. The deadline for applying for the job ended on March 29 and the AIFF has reportedly set an internal deadline of May 7 to finalise a name. This means that when the team takes the field on June 5 at the Chang Arena in Buriram, Thailand for their first King's Cup match, they will have spent just under a month with the new coach.
The Federation reportedly received over 250 applications but financial constraints itself would have helped them strike many names out -- the AIFF's budget permits them to pay the coach a maximum salary of $25,000 per month.
Big names such as Sven-Goran Eriksson and Sam Allardyce were being bandied in the initial days but they have since been sidelined and the frontrunner now seems to be former Bengaluru FC coach Albert Roca.
Constantine's tactics and his player selection raised eyebrows on multiple occasions but it is undeniable that the team made significant strides under him. In the Asian Cup itself, they raced to a 4-1 win over Thailand and were the better team for the most of their match against UAE, despite ending the game on the wrong side of a 2-0 scoreline. Before that, they had notably held China to a 0-0 draw at the latter's home. He was at the helm for nearly four years in his second stint and in this time, the Indian Super League was introduced and India's league system went into a state of flux that it still is in. Constantine tried to work his way through all of it and assembled a team that qualified for a first Asian Cup since 2011. His example is an important one for the powers that be to consider.
A foreign coach does not need to have an intricate understanding of how the country works -- even an Indian coach would have a hard time doing that -- but a familiarity with the system they are about to work in will undoubtedly go a long way in deciding in how his stint works.
Keeping these factors in mind, it is tempting to think of Roca as the absolute frontrunner for the job. In his two-year stint as coach of Bengaluru FC, the club reached a historic AFC Cup final in 2016, won the Federation Cup in 2017 and reached the ISL final the same year. He is already familiar with a few members of the national side, especially the talismanic skipper Sunil Chhetri.
However, Roca or otherwise, the new coach of the team will have something in common with his predecessors -- they will be dealing with an unstable league system. The AIFF's plans of making the ISL the top division has been met with significant resistance from the I-League clubs and one can be assured that the league system in the country will be looking significantly different from what has been the case for a better part of this decade.
At this juncture, we go back to what hockey coach Oltmans had to say about adapting to a new country: "If you make the choice to go to a foreign country, you have to adapt to that culture. It's not the other way around." In the case of going to India to coach the country's national team, one could add the phrase "constant change" to the list of things that a foreigner may have to adapt to.
(Rohit Mundayur can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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