Stephen Constantine had more than soccer on his mind during a recent visit to Sacramento.
Constantine coaches the men’s national soccer team of India. He hopes to someday bring his team to California to play a series of friendlies, including against Republic FC at Bonney Field.
The 53-year-old Constantine is English and a friend of fellow countryman Graham Smith, Republic FC’s director of football. He’s also a huge Raiders fan, an affinity he developed while playing minor-league soccer in America during the 1980s.
“When I was a young boy, I played for a team in England called Millwall,” Constantine said. “The team song – the chant – is ‘No one likes us, and we don’t care.’ When I came to the States in ’82, it was the Raiders with guys like Lyle Alzado and Howie Long that weren’t liked much, either. So it was a natural fit for me.”
So the highlight of his trip to America was more than getting a chance to watch Republic FC and the San Jose Earthquakes train and play in their respective matches. It was getting a VIP tour of the Raiders’ headquarters and training facility in Alameda.
“I love football and the tactical aspects of the game,” Constantine said. “I like Jack Del Rio (the Raiders coach) and what he is doing with the team this season. He’s a teacher and it resonates with me.”
Del Rio, whose Raiders are off to a 3-3 start, is trying to turn around a franchise that had its last winning season in 2002.
Constantine’s job, however, is a lot tougher than Del Rio’s.
Although India has the world’s second-largest population, it’s a small player in men’s soccer, where it is No. 167 in FIFA’s world rankings.
“India has been playing soccer for a very long time and probably has one of the oldest cup tournaments in the world,” said Constantine, who coached India’s national team from 2002 to 2005 before returning in January. “But they haven’t developed as they should have, even though there are some very good players in India. So hopefully we can get it right.”
Though a logistical and political challenge, Constantine said the chance for India to play in California would be an eye-opening experience for his players. He’d like to see some of them have the chance to play in the United States, possibly even with Sacramento. Kaleemullah, a Pakistan men’s national team captain, plays for Republic FC.
“We have three or four really good national team players and some under-19 and under-20 players who could come here and do a job in the U.S.,” Constantine said. “But what I don’t want is for a player to come over for the T-shirts. I want him to be good enough to play.”
Though the conversation is in its early stages, Smith said Republic FC is open to the idea of a match.
“To have a national team come in and play a game, there is a market for it,” Smith said. “It’s not just a novelty. We’ve reached out. It’s certainly something we want to explore.”
Republic FC has already hosted a number of high-profile teams. It has played friendlies against English Premier League teams Sunderland AFC, Newcastle United FC and West Bromwich Albion at Bonney Field. It has twice played Atlas FC from Liga MX in addition to the San Jose Earthquakes, its Major League Soccer affiliate. It also hosted the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League at Hughes Stadium.
Constantine is impressed by soccer’s growth in America. He played for the Pennsylvania Stoners in Allentown, Pa. – “Alpo was a sponsor; we didn’t last long” – and the New York Pancyprian-Freedoms in Astoria, N.Y. But professional soccer was moribund during that time. The North American Soccer League had folded in 1984 and the MLS wasn’t born until 1995.
“(Soccer) was dying a (slow) death, so I went back to London,” he said. “It’s good to be back and really good to see the changes.”