Indian U-17 team's performance was more of hype than actual achievement on the field
Indian Under-17 football team's performance at the FIFA World Cup was mediocre and the hype surrounding it was unjustified, national head coach Stephen Constantine said on Sunday.
Constantine's outburst came during a media interaction before the start of the training camp here for the next month's SAFF Championships in Bangladesh.
The Briton's out-of-the-blue comments may ruffle some feathers in the All India Football Federation (AIFF) whose president Praful Patel had praised the national U-17 team for its gutsy performance in the FIFA's youth showpiece event the country hosted last year.
Asked if he felt India U-17 team goalkepeer Dheeraj Singh's career was not handled properly (by his managers), Constantine initially said, "I have nothing to do with the looking after of that boy. That is not my job."
But he went on to say that the Indian U-17 team's performance was more of hype than actual achievement on the field.
"There was a lot of hype in the U-17 team's performance. They did not win any game in the U-17 World Cup and I am not quite sure what the hype was about. The team did OK. But I never knew why we are making it such a big deal. In the first place, the team did not qualify in the U-17 World Cup, (but played as) India hosted the tournament. Too much was made out of it," he said.
"Did the U-17 team pull up any trees? They lost all the group games (against Colombia, USA and Ghana). It is you guys (the media) that make it (the team) big. The future and the cream of Indian football played in the I-League and came last," he said sarcastically.
Asked whether the AIFF was to be blamed for that, he said, "It is not a question of blamig the AIFF. That is how it is."
Dheeraj whose performance under the bar got him accolades, quit India Arrows to go for a trial with Motherwell FC in Scotland but returned after a few months and lost game time for most part of the season.
Constantine later appeared to be retracting from his scathing comments, as he issued a statement through All India Football Federation simply saying that his comments have been misinterpreted. He, however, did not mention in the statement what he had actually said about the Indian U-17 World Cup team.
"I believe we all have a responsibility to help these young players progress and develop after what they have experienced from the World Cup and the I-League. The result in the World Cup and I-League is irrelevant. Although they finished last in the I-League, the objective was to give the upcoming Indian players more game time and to play regularly in competitive games week in and week out," he said in the statement.
"I have always said it's not about winning but it is about the development in these age-groups. They would have learnt a great deal from the experiences gathered from both the I-League and the U-17 World Cup which will help them going forward."
During the media interaction, Constantine also described Indian Olympic Association's refusal to send the Indian team for next month's Asian Games as an 'appalling decision'.
"It is an appalling decision. They (the IOA) took the decision based on the results of previous Asian Games, which is held every four years. We are not the same team four or eight years ago. It was a huge disappointment. It will harm Indian football. I thought we had a good opportunity to qualify from the group."
The Indian team's training camp for the September 4-15 SAFF Championships begins tomorrow at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here and will continue till August 15.
The team will then leave the country for Australia for another training stint and from there will directly fly to Bangladesh for the SAFF Championships.
India have won the SAFF Championships seven times in 11 editions and are defending champions this time. Constantine has named a team largely made up of U-23 players.
The likes of star striker and senior team captain Sunil Chhetri and Bengalauru FC winger Udanta Singh are not taking part in the tournament.
Udanta and his Bengaluru FC team-mate Nishu Kumar have been exempted from the tournament as they are going to play for the club in the AFC Cup.
"We are starting preparations for the SAFF as well as the Asian Cup (in January next year). I thank all the clubs for releasing their players for the SAFF Championships. I hope this kind of cooperation will continue in future also," said the coach.
"Bengaluru FC is representing India in the AFC Cup and so we have exempted the two players. We will allow those two players to play in the AFC competitions. I am 100 per cent behind them. If there is any other club who are playing in the AFC Cup, I will be happy to exempt their players also," he added.
Four India U-20 players who will play in the COTIF tournament in Spain will join the camp later.
Constantine also informed that India will play Oman on December 27 in a friendly and against another strong Asian team in November, besides the match against China in October, which has already been announced.