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Stephen Constantine: From Malawi to Millwall, next stop China?

constantine 1Stephen Constantine is not a household name in the world of football coaching in the same way as the CSL’s Marcello Lippi or Sven Goran-Erikson is, but he boosts a remarkable CV considerably more diverse than either. In a coaching career that has taken him across four continents to date, he’s been at the helm of the Nepali, Sudanese, Indian, and Malawi national teams as well as several club sides in Cyprus. He first learned the basics of coaching in the USA and had a stint as first team coach at London side Millwall. Constantine was recently featured  in British tabloid the Daily Mail where he declared he was looking for a new challenge. He told founding editor Cameron Wilson he sees China as an ideal next destination as he seeks to continue a career of coaching adventure.

Stephen thanks very much for taking the time to speak to Wild East Football, it’s an honour to have a coach of such worldwide experience seek us out to chat with us. So let’s get started. China is a country attracting more and more attention over the last couple of years as a destination for foreign coaches and players to go. Are you similarly attracted and what have you heard of the Chinese league through the grapevine?

I have been following the progress of Chinese football for some time now since when I was Indian national coach we played against their U23 at the Busan Asian Games in S Korea, we lost 2-0 but I was impressed with the way they played. I think China would be a good fit for me for several reasons, the mentality is they want to improve, and I have many friends who have worked there and they all say that its improving.

Of course the big names are being attracted by the big money in China but I don’t always think that’s the right way to look at it. For me the reason to bring a foreign player or coach is to help improve the local players and coaches, and not just take the money and run which is what many people are doing. As a coach educator I have the unique opportunity to improve player and coach alike at the club or national association and therefore feel give full value to the club…of course there are problems but if we improve the level of coaches we in turn improve the level of player and that has to be the way forward

Have you heard anything specific about the football here? Good or bad?

Stephen Constantine: I have been told standard is quite good overall and I have a couple of players that were playing for me in Cyprus that have been over there and played, I have also managed to watch a few clips here and there. It of course can improve and that’s why we need people who want to work and help do that rather than people who are just looking to end their careers with a big payout and not contribute to the development of chinese football

You are a UEFA pro licence holder – can you explain to the outsider what exactly this means, what advantages it delivers and how it could help you secure a job in China or anywhere else?

Stephen Constantine: A Pro License is the highest coaching qualification you can hold, In England it gives you the right to manage and work with players in the Premier League / National teams. It is a very difficult process and involves a great deal of work both on and off the pitch. Learing how to deal with media, agents, planning for the season and all sorts of other interesting topics as well as the tactical aspects and being able to analyse and read the game. You also need to have the ability to dissect a game and then be able to correct the problems, It’s like having your PHD in football and of course then you need to go out and work.

I think working with the quality that is the FA in England you are dealing with the top end of our profession and just by being there you are going to learn an awful lot ……as I said my added advantage is that I am also able to help coaches as well, and that is another reason that teams are interested in my services.

Of the current crop of CSL managers, how many would you guess hold this level of license? Is it commonly held outside of the leagues in developed countries?

Well all of them should have it. The AFC do this course and by rights to coach at the top-level you need to have this.

constantine 5But is it possible to manage a club without it? Are there lower levels of qualification? Knowing what we do about Chinese football here at , it’s not outside the realm of possibility that some coaches lack this license.

Yes it is possible but obviously for me the quality will be impacted negatively , it’s not just about reading the game it’s about organisation , it’s about dealing with professionals, there is so much to deal with these days that not having it I feel puts you at a disadvantage.

You get what you pay for I feel and if you want your child to be taught then you would want a qualified teacher to teach them. The Chinese FA and the clubs are putting in a lot of money at the moment and to be honest why would you hire someone to coach your club who is not qualified to do so , its like having a racehorse pull a donkeys cart !! It doesn’t make sense.

Very true Stephen. So would you say China needs more racehorses and less donkeys?

Ha ha, yes I understand why they want to bring the big names and I don’t disagree with that , but those names must be prepared to put the hours in and work in the trenches to help the local players/ coaches. It is all very well bringing in the big stars but are they getting value for money? If so then fine but perhaps we are missing the point … Japan, South Korea, Australia would not dream of hiring a coach that wa snot qualified or bringing someone in that was not going to be used in the right way they – this is why they don’t miss out on too many World Cups ………

What’s your take on Sven Goran Erikson’s arrival in China with Guangzhou R&F ?

He has a great deal of experience and has been around for some time.

That sounds like a very diplomatic answer, ha ha. What do you think of those who say his fame has waned since leaving the England job and coming to China is a final payday-type arrangement?

Heh heh, look I think he has had a great career, look at where he has been and what he has done I don’t think you can argue too much about his record and what he has achieved, he does have a great deal to offer my only question is how motivated is he? He has jumped from one thing to the other recently and perhaps China can be the job that keeps him there and if he stays then im sure Guangzhou R&F will do well

From a coaches point of view though, at a time when China is under fire for not producing enough of their own players, is it really worth splashing out a huge load of cash on someone like Sven? What difference can he really make in terms of leaving a legacy of improvement behind?

Well that goes back to the point I was making before, you want people who are hungry to succeed who need to do well to secure their next job, people will give the job everything because if they don’t there not going to get that next job. People bring in a Sven or a Bosque pay millions and then expect that the team will play like England or Spain or because you bring in a Spanish coach there going to play like Barcelona so many national associations and clubs are blinded by the success of the name rather than thinking what can this guy do to improve on what I have.

Each nationality has its own identity and a certain way of playing.We as foreign coaches should be focusing on that and adding things to it. The Chinese have their own style of play we should be trying to bring out the good things they have and introducing things that will enhance what they have not try to change their mentality or style of play …..we can of course improve on the technical and tactical side. But you can’t ask a Chinese player to play the way Spanish player plays it doesn’t work like that.

Sconstantine 2o, when you are dealing with a league like the CSL, it’s an unusual in that there is a strict foreign player limit, therefore clubs with money are signing guys who are usually significantly better than the local players. How do you coach that?

A good question , the idea for me is to bring a player that wants to help those around him, of course the local player needs to be open to the fact that this guy his making a load more money then me and accept the fact, the question for the local players is should be what can I take from this guy who has played at the top-level? Those things can rub off in time and be passed down , so you use the foreign guys as props to help raise the level of the local players, their training habits and the way they conduct themselves. You hope they will be an example to the young Chinese players.

How do you go about finding players like that? Does the kind of player who would find playing in China attractive going to be more or less flexible in his approach and be willing to put in the extra effort to boost his team-mates, rather than just pick up the big money from the CSL club or any other club paying extra money for foreigners?

Well personally I try to find out as much as I can out about the player then I go after him, they must lead by example so there is no point bringing a player to China who is not a step above the locals, or at the very least a model professional. Of course that is not always easy to do but it is what you need to strive for when brining in a foreign player where ever you are. He is getting paid many times the amount of the local player so it must be explained and understood that he needs to do a few things extra at times, I think it is more than reasonable to expect that when they are paid much more.
Speaking of money, I understand you left your last club, Ehnikos Achna, after “players and staff were unpaid.” Regular readers, and in particular Shanghai Shenhua followers, may find this reason for departure somewhat familiar. How do long did you keep coaching through such financial difficulties and can you take us through a typical crisis – how do you deal with it at the start and at what point do you feel you can’t go on?

Sadly it is something that is coming up more and more and it is a very difficult situation, I think it is especially tough for the players who are making the bare minimum because they will not have anything to cover themselves if they don’t get paid. It is something that in Europe they are trying to sort out as now from October all club personnel must sign a document every month that they have been paid and are up to date, if not then the club will deducted 2 points immediately so that has been good news for everyone.

I can only speak for myself in terms of how difficult it is when you have gone 3-4 even 5 months without pay it really is a terrible situation when you have bills to pay children to feed and so on . It has happened to me at all 3 clubs that I have been with here in Cyprus and it’s not easy I can tell you. You don’t go out and buy things without thinking at least twice before doing so, not because you don’t have the money but because you’re not sure when you will get the next salary!

There does come a time however when you have to say enough is enough and everyone has their own limits. When you have 20 odd players all struggling like we had it is very difficult to keep them focussed and playing as each player will have his own problems and aside from the game you need to deal with the fact he doesn’t have money to put petrol in the car!! It is not something that is easily explained really, times an individual situation by 25 because you also have yourself and your staff to deal with. This situation should not be happening period we all work hard and need to get paid…and I hope that Asia starts to move in a similar way to Europe

Speaking of Asia, you spent thOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAree years managing the Indian national team from 2002-2005. A country a lot like China, with a massive population in Asia but under-achieving in football. How was your time there, what do you think of the parallels between the sport in India and China? Both countries are still not really any further forward than they were 10 years ago.

Ok for me China is quite a way ahead of India in all areas on the football front, in both development and organisation. Chinese see the value of football a lot more than they do in India, and they are investing millions of dollars into the game. In India they are not and although football is a hugely popular sport there, many states still don’t have an organised league or even play football. But in China the game has been taken to every corner of the country and of course bringing in big names to play in China is always going to bring media attention which is of course needed to promote and help develop the game.

There is also the work ethic in India. Things are a little laid back and they move to their own rhythm. But I feel in China they have moved a lot further than in India and sure there is a long way to go but they are closer to a World Cup than India that is for sure. The question is now the Chinese need to step it up a gear or two and get people in who will work and produce. You don’t need big names to promote the game in China it’s already there, you need to make stars from the local players and as I mentioned before develop the coaches and then young players.

Japan did it this way, sure they had some top names involved, but their programme to develop their own players was the main plan and my good friend Tom Byer who set up technical skill academies all over Japan must take credit for this. His concept was that all Japanese youngsters should be technically sound by the age of 12 and then those players join clubs in Japan. It is not an accident that they have qualified for almost all the Asian Finals at youth level and of course been to all of the recent World Cups. China has a great need to follow this and am happy to see that Tom has begun to implement some programmes in China at school level…

So what is it then about China that makes it an interesting destination for succesful coaches like Tom, Sven and Lippi?

I think there are many factors for a coach and in particular myself regarding coaching in China. First as someone who has travelled the world and been to many countries, I feel China, like India, is somewhere I can help develop the game, and of course be a part of what I feel is going to be a league on par with the J-League and other top leagues around Asia. There is a great sense of satisfaction when you are part of something that is successful and I feel it is a matter of time before the Chinese League is that.

I know there have been and I am sure will be many problems in the future but this is life, I think the league is at a crossroads and now have to make a few decisions in terms of which way do they want to go develop the league. Will they continue to bring the names ? For me it should be development of local players and coaches, and lets not forget the administrative side of things. Of course the financial rewards are also a factor in China much like it was is in the many of the Gulf countries but the big money does not guarantee success as we have seen in the Gulf, which brings me back to the need to bring people in who can help on and off the pitch…

Finally, have you made any inroads into China so far through your network? How easy is it for a coach to find a position in a foreign country in general?

It is very difficult to break into China, I am not sure why to be honest it could be because they only want big names to coach there. But not all the coaches are what we would say are household names, and as I said before it’s not all about the big names, people come to see players they don’t come to see the coach, of course bringing in a big name will sometimes generate interest but that disappears quickly if the team is not doing well. I obviously feel that I have a great deal to offer football in China and look forward to getting an opportunity to do so one day…

would like to thank Stephen for his time and insights. Check out his latest activity on twitter.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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