A fruitful outing for team India

S. SUBRAMANIUM

“It's always good to win. The games have been good for the boys and we are happy to have won most of them. This trip was not about earning FIFA ranking points but to instil confidence amongst the boys,” said India team coach Bob Houghton (below), about the team's tour of Portugal as a build up to next year's Asia Cup.

Team India, under coach Bob Houghton's tutelage, had an extensive two months training session in Portugal as a build up to next year's Asia Cup in Qatar in January.

Competing in the continent's elite competition after a long hiatus of 26 years, the SAF giants have been placed in a tough group alongside Australia, South Korea and Bahrain.

Houghton has primarily focused in putting up a strong fight against the continent's elite. “We have very tough opponents; you are talking about three of the top five countries in Asia in our group. People shouldn't set their hopes too high.” he said.

While in Portugal, the team played 10 friendly matches against physically stronger European opponents. It won six, lost two and drew two of the matches. The players showed consistency, although questions are being raised about the quality of the opponents who were all from the lower divisions of the Portuguese league.

Coach Houghton, however, was impressed with the progress made and added: “It's always good to win. The games have been good for the boys and we are happy to have won most of them. This trip was not about earning FIFA ranking points but to instil confidence amongst the boys.”

India opened in style, beating third division outfit Caldas SC 4-1, before notching up another comfortable 6-2 win over Desportivo Monsanto.

Without his main strikers — skipper Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chettri — Houghton pitted Churchill Brothers' Mohammed Rafi and Mumbai FC's Abhishek Yadav upfront and the duo justified his faith, combining well with midfielders N. S. Manju and N. P. Pradeep. The side suffered its first defeat against SU Sintrense in its fourth game but bounced back immediately to share the honours with Casa Pia AC, five days later.

Bhutia had a problem with his thyroid, returned home midway and joined the team again during the final stage of the tour but was kept out by Houghton for the matches, giving him time to recuperate. Chettri, too, joined the side later, after securing a release from his MLS side, Kansas City Wizards. “This is the only time in our careers that the national team will be together for such a long time. I had a long discussion with the coach (Peter Vermes of Kansas Wizards) and I tried to convince him. I had to do a lot of persuasion,” Chettri said about his sudden move to give up on his lucrative club contract.

The team now is slated to train together till the tournament in January and play a series of international friendlies against the likes of Thailand, Namibia, Vietnam and Yemen, with efforts also on to organise a game with recent World Cup participants North Korea.

Ayon Sengupta