Pulasta Dhar column: Amid the sea of yellow, Stephen Constantine’s East Bengal look to make a point
Excitement for the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23 season opener between Kerala Blasters and East Bengal in Kochi on 7 October is building. So is the swell of the yellow sea surrounding the stadium as fans get ready to return to the stands. So is the avalanche of yellow shirts and slogans and chants that can be a deafening welcome when it hits you. The sense of anticipation is such that it is easy to forget another team is also part of the equation. That red and gold and white will also be involved: familiar with success in the past, but unfamiliar to the elite company which has usually formed the race for the Hero ISL shield and trophy in recent memories. And that is exactly what East Bengal’s head coach Stephen Constantine probably wants because one can send a reminder only when threatened with being forgotten.
East Bengal are about to embark on their third year in the Hero ISL, and three years has become a curious cycle for clubs in modern football: whether it is to learn, to rebuild, or to consistently win. The club is still in the learning and rebuilding phase, and never more than the upcoming season. After a scattered approach over the past two seasons, with haphazard signings of players and coaches who did not have the experience in Indian football, the Kolkata side have been more measured this time.
In Constantine comes a coach who has navigated the challenging terrains of Indian football. In Cleiton Silva comes a captain and striker who has the measurements of goalmouths mapped in his mind: 16 goals and 9 assists in 37 Hero ISL games. In VP Suhair and new Brazilian Eliandro are two clever and hard-to-shrug-off forwards who will keep defenders guessing. 21-year-old centre-back Lalchungnunga looks assured, especially alongside Ivan Gonzalez, who somehow continues to glide into the right positions. Also from Cyprus is Charalampos Kyriakou who has already won the fans over with some committed performances in the Durand Cup. Add to this a smattering of intrigue in Tuhin Das, Jordan O’Doherty, and Himanshu Jangra; and the Hero ISL experience of Souvik Chakraborty, Aniket Jadhav, Mobashir Rahman, Kamaljit Singh, and Mahesh Singh among others.
This team might succeed but it will also be undone a few times in the process. That is football. But more than all the hopeful superlatives, there is a psychological feeling that ties this group, led by their head coach. The feeling of wanting to prove a point. Constantine needs to harness this and be cunning in his approach. When to fall back on his tried and tested pragmatism and see it frustratingly falter like in the Kolkata derby in the Durand Cup; and when to unleash his side’s hunger like in the 4-3 win against Mumbai City in the same tournament. And to find the right balance between these two approaches. The Hero ISL’s unpredictability has rewarded tactical flexibility and punished stubbornness. Constantine is too experienced to not know that.
But it is at East Bengal that he will have the space, time, and a lack of the usual sky-high expectations [partly due to the disappointments of the last two seasons]. He will also have what no other East Bengal head coach has had in the past: fans in the Hero ISL getting behind the team. After two seasons in the bubble, the red and golds will finally get a chance to back their team from the stands. They must force themselves into the conversation and make Kolkata a tough visit for the other sides.
In the opener in Kochi, all eyes are on last season’s finalists. The home side, led by the dizzyingly popular head coach Ivan Vukomanovic and the eclectic captain Adrian Luna, will be given the welcome of heroes. Everything else will be drowned out. Flashbulbs will pop and crowds will cheer for Kerala Blasters. It is the perfect time for East Bengal to plot in the shadows, but they must also make sure their season does not look like a dark corridor. Kochi might wash them away by sheer awe of the occasion, but it will also help them stare in the eye of the mighty yellow wall. Whichever way it goes, Constantine and Co could not have asked for a better test to start their campaign.