Sunil Chhetri battles for possession during India’s friendly against Oman. India will play their first match against Thailand on January 6. Image Credit: N.D. Prashant/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Being a coach in a country with over a billion population has its own share of challenges. Be it cricket, football or for that matter any other sport, expectations always shoot over the roof whenever a big competition lurks.

And who better that Indian football coach Stephen Constantine to know that. The Briton has seen it all, he had been there when the sport was struggling to re-establish itself among the masses and has been again roped in after nearly a decade when it is going through a major transition for the better.

For a team currently ranked 97 in the world — their second best since their all-time high of 94 in 1996 and a low of 173 in 2015 — these are exciting times. They secured a direct qualification to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 1984 after getting the better of an ineffective Macau in their third-round Group A qualifier last year.

“There has been a huge change, players are more aware of things in terms of how to look after themselves and of course, there is money in the game and better facilities,” said Constantine in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.

“I don’t think there is too much difference in terms of coaching the Indian players; they are always very receptive and work very hard and in both my spells in India, we have done really well. The credit goes to the players from the past and present,” added Constantine, whose first stint with India lasted from 2002 to 2005.

The advent of India’s biggest business conglomerate Reliance to aid the sport and establishment of Indian Super League (ISL) has triggered a wave of renewed enthusiasm among the fans in the country.

The big purse has drawn in more youth to the sport. There is a sense of belief that India can reinvent themselves on the big stage and bring back the glory days of the 1950 and 60s — when they qualified for the Fifa World Cup and finished runners-up to hosts Israel at the 1964 Asian Cup.

“Absolutely, yes,” said the coach. “In terms of awareness and bringing football to people all over India, the ISL has been great. Of course, there are things that could be always better but things seem to be going in the right direction. Regarding the I-League, the issues are the same to the ISL with regards to the development.”

Constantine is well aware that the task at hand in the Asian Cup is not easy. His side are nowhere close to being a regional powerhouse yet.

However, the 56-year-old is more optimistic than ever. He is confident that his side will not be just making up the numbers and will pose a serious threat to the rivals in their group comprising hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand.

“All three games will pose different problems and all are very good teams.” he said. “We will, of course, try and create problems for our opponents and our objective is to make it out of the group.”

“It’s always important to do well whoever the nation is and it’s no different for us. We are going to give everything we have and try to qualify from the group.”

Constantine’s contract is up for renewal in March and an extension would largely depend on how he and his wards fair in the continental showpiece event.

“It’s like any other major event for me,” he added. “I take it one game at a time. Our final is the first game and then take it from there. Of course, I’m really looking forward to the games and delighted we managed to qualify top of our group. I’m 100 per cent focused on doing well with the team and not contract issues.”

The Blue Tigers have already shown a lot of promise after holding Oman to a goalless draw in a closed-door friendly on Thursday.

“It was a good performance against a very good Oman team who are the Gulf Cup of Nations champions,” said Constantine. “We can improve in areas and we will look to get better and are working towards it.”

Constantine also played down reports that there was rift within the team and he and his star player Sunil Chhetri were not on the same page.

“It’s brilliant and we have a great group of players who are really excited to be here and looking forward to the competition,” said Constantine, whose team will be playing their first match against Thailand on January 6 followed by clashes with the UAE and Bahrain on January 10 and 14, respectively.