In the second part of the exclusive interview with Indian National Coach Stephen Constantine, AIFF Media takes you to a trip down memory lane on India’s 2002 LG Cup triumph in Vietnam.
In a freewheeling chat, Constantine who was the Coach in that tournament speaks at length about the final match as it panned out, the planning, the moments, his players, the celebrations and much more.
August 10. Does it ring any bell?
(Stephen Constantine smiles). It’s a special day. We won the LG Cup in 2002.
Why is it special?
On a personal level it was my first major international accomplishment. So I can never forget it ever. Furthermore it came at a time when India hadn’t won anything since 1971 (apart from winning in the SAFF region).
It is all the more special because we were told or were ‘supposed’ to go to Vietnam to play two practice matches and come back. That was part of our preparation for the 2002 Busan Asian Games. No one expected us to do anything beyond those two games. So it was so satisfying to prove to many in India and abroad that we had the capabilities of doing something. The self belief was exemplary.
How did the day begin?
The match was slated for the evening and I didn’t want the boys to sit idle in Hotel and do nothing. In an effort to keep them active and take their minds away from the game, I took them out to the field and worked a bit on finishing. It was a session of max not even 30 minutes. The Players had never been in such a position before and I didn’t want them to be thinking too much about the match.
Obviously on a Match Day, until it kicks-off it’s the worst time for any Coach as you can’t really do anything.
Did the session help?
Had you not done the hard work prior the session couldn’t have helped at all. Psychologically, however, it worked wonders. It took their minds off from what was supposed to come. There was no pressure on them and the intent was to stretch the legs.
What went through your mind when we went two nil down?
(Constantine leans back in his Chair and laughs). After 21 minutes we were already two nil down and somewhere I was beginning to think to myself ‘Did I do it too much?’
Vietnam had fielded two sides in the Tournament, an U-23 side whom we had beaten on way to the Final and this was their Senior Team against our U-23 squad preparing for the Busan Asian Games.
The crowd – was it hostile?
Undoubtedly it was. That’s normal in such a match. It was almost about 30000 and they were very vocal. That we had beaten Vietnam U-23 on our way to the Final wasn’t pleasing proposition to them and they wanted a victory at any cost. It was simply electric.
How did you turn the tide?
As I told you, we were down two nil by the 21st minute. Maybe we were a bit taken aback by the enormity of the Final; there was pressure, the crowd and it was our fifth game in 10 days.
I remember substituting Ajayan in the 22nd minute itself. He was struggling to breathe. I don’t know what was it all about – was it about nerves or the magnitude of the situation. I brought in Tomba Singh and he turned out to be the game changer.
What was Tomba’s role?
Tomba’s Football intelligence to read the game was amazing. He could beat a Player, essay those passes and was able to go on both sides. We reduced the margin just before the interval. A cross came in and the Goalkeeper dropped the ball. Baichung, the poacher, as he always was, slammed it in. We went into the interval 2-1 down.
What was the half-time talk about?
‘We can win this.’
What happened next?
I had told the boys to focus a bit more on what we can do and not on what they are doing.
Soon Baichung got us the equaliser. And as the match progressed, the crowd was becoming upset as we looked the Team more likely to score. There was a steely determination on the field and everyone was tough. We were sniffing it and from 0-2 down to drawing level 2-2 in a Final match away from Home, there was no way we were going back without the Trophy.
(Constantine takes a deep breath). I took IM Vijayan off and brought in Abhishek (Yadav). He had come in as a substitute in previous matches too and he gave us the height which I feel is always required. The cross came in and….(Constantine pauses).
There was pin drop silence on the field. It was a fantastic header, a perfect one. From 0-2 down in 21 minutes, we were 3-2 up and despite the rivals being rough, we held on.
Madness! Euphoria! Unbelievable scenes! I remember placing the Trophy next to me in the Bus. It was so satisfying. We proved Indian Footballers could win too.
An estimated crowd of 10000 came to greet us at the Kolkata Airport. That’s the speciality of the City. It knows to rise to the occasion.
How much satisfying is it to recollect the memories?
It’s always nice to remember such achievements. I’m extremely proud of the Players who did the job for their Country. A triumph in any International Tournament is indeed a very proud moment. I hope that we have more such moments in Indian Football soon.
(Interview & Photo courtesy: AIFF Media)