“We have shocked Africa twice this past three months and we will try to do so again”
In Road to Russia’s first big interview, Editor Elliot McGrath poses the questions to Rwanda’s London born Head Coach, Stephen Constantine.
How did you first get into coaching?
It was for me a natural thing to do, I have only ever wanted to play and then coach, it was not even a thought it just happened.
You started international management at Nepal, a side who have lost around two-thirds of their total matches. What did you learn during your time there?
Not to take anything for granted, and that no matter how hard things were whatever I did would be an improvement. The players are so willing and eager to learn and improve that it really was a pleasure to work with them.
After a spell in England you were appointed as the manager of India. What was it like managing a nation the size of India? Do you think football will ever surpass cricket in popularity?
It was difficult because you not only have the distances to travel but the mentality in each state is quite different, and getting them all to adhere to one formula is not easy. I was lucky as I had Mr Alberto Colaco who was the General Secretary and was excellent. We did very well in my time there and Indian football was on the up. I think more people play football than cricket to be honest, it’s just that cricket controls the media. We played Japan in an international in the middle of the week and drew 100,000 at that game, and local derbies between the two big clubs regularly draw those numbers. Indian football has not been marketed properly and that I feel is the difference cricket has.
Between 2007 and 2010 you managed Malawi and then Sudan. Why did you want to return to international management?
I think it is a question of what is on offer at the particular time where you are between jobs. I am not saying you take anything that comes but I enjoyed my time in both Nepal and India and the thought of going to Africa was very exciting for me, another continent to experience. For me the idea of building something that will last longer than my tenure appeals to me and with both countries went to the African Cup of Nations within a year of my leaving, both using more or less same players, and both coaches were my assistants in my time there.
What are the main differences between Asian and African football?
They are much more physical in Africa and that is one of the reasons there are so many more Africans in Europe than Asians.
As with other African nations, war has affected the Sudan national football team. Did you see any effects of this during your time there?
My time in Sudan coincided with the issue of an arrest warrant for the Prime minister Mr Al Bashir and things were a little tense to say the least. The people of Sudan were good to me and I never felt unsafe or under any sort of threat.
After leaving Sudan it was another four years before you returned to international management. Why did you return to the domestic game?
After Sudan I had a few offers here and there and also some in Cyprus, my wife and three daughters are in Cyprus and so it was a good opportunity to see the girls grow up, and Cyprus is a great place to live and the football is not bad either! It is amazing that teams there regularly qualify for the group stages of both Champions League and Europa League, so it was a good move at the time both professionally and personally.
Rwanda were 2-0 down after the first-leg with Congo, were you always confident you could turn it around and qualify for the next phase?
It was the manner in which we lost in Congo that gave me and the players the confidence, aside from some shocking refereeing we didn’t play how we would have wanted and we knew in Kigali we would be a different team. We were and thoroughly deserved to win, and although we needed penalties and the drama that goes with it, I was quietly confident that we would come through.
You now face a tough qualifying group alongside African giants South Africa and Nigeria, as well as your old side Sudan. What are your expectations going in?
To qualify! It is a difficult task for sure but you have to believe that you can otherwise there is no point in going. We can hurt teams here in Rwanda and we need to try and win our home games and pinch something away, it is why we play this game to be in a situation where you can show the World what you can do. We have shocked Africa twice this past three months and we will try to do so again.
How important is it to get off to a positive start against reigning champions Nigeria in your opening game?
It is not how you start it is how you finish that matters. Nigeria away is a very difficult game on and off the pitch, so we go there as under dogs. Nigeria is a huge footballing nation and I have a great deal of respect for them and their Coach Stephen Keshi. We of course respect them but we will go and fight from the first minute to the last. Don’t forget also that we are all locally based players, none in Europe. This in time will been a great experience for our players as we are building for the future.
Rwanda are relatively new to world cup qualifying, having only consistently entered since the 1998 edition. Do you feel it’s important for international sides to enter the competition if they are to improve?
I think any international competition is good for the team and the experience gained from these games is huge. There is much to do here and we have employed a Technical Director who specializes in the development of Youth, so this will be a factor in a couple of years.
How important is the world cup to smaller nations? How far away do you feel an African side is from winning the competition?
The dream of going to a World Cup is with all nations no matter how small you are, and it is important that everyone feels they have a chance to get there. The decision to expand the World Cup to 40 teams is a very good move in my opinion and Africa will benefit by having another few spots. This will add to the African competition as in the 2010 World Cup you had three nations qualify for the first time. African football is very up and down at times and it is possible for some of the lesser known nations to get a chance to qualify. As for an African team winning the World Cup, you never know, but there needs to be a lot of things done off the pitch as well. There is the quality no doubt but you need to have both sides working together, and that is not always the case with the African teams.
Stephen played professional football until a serious knee injury ended his career but had already begun his path to coaching. A diverse career has seen him work with club sides in the United States, Cyprus and England, as well as managing international sides Nepal, India, Malawi, Sudan, and now Rwanda.
At the age of 38 Stephen was appointed to the panel of FIFA Coach Instructors, becoming one of the youngest to be granted this position, and qualified for his UEFA Professional Licence in 2004. He runs www.stephenconstantine.co.uk and regularly shares updates on his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
The Rwanda national football team’s next African Cup of Nations qualifier is against Nigeria on the 5/6th of September 2014. They are in Group A alongside Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan, after beating Libya, and then Congo, to progress this far.