Another coach makes a premature exit

S. SUBRAMANIUM

For one who could make an impression in China, easily one of the leading forces in Asia now, Houghton would have dreamt of turning the fortunes of India, something that would have pleased the Asian Football Confederation President Mohd. bin Hammam as well. By S.R. Suryanarayan.

Experienced English coach Robert Douglas Houghton or better known as Bob Houghton was the latest to suffer the ignominy of an abrupt departure, on a controversial note, from Indian football. After having seen the experience of all foreign coaches who served Indian football in recent memory, Houghton may not be the last either.

In his 30 years experience, the 63-year-old Houghton had coached many countries, including China (his last assignment), before he decided on the challenge of handling another populous nation. For one who could make an impression in China, easily one of the leading forces in Asia now, Houghton would have dreamt of turning the fortunes of India, something that would have pleased the Asian Football Confederation President Mohd. bin Hammam as well. The Asian chief believes that India has much to contribute to the overall growth of football in the continent.

In the end, what seemed to hasten Houghton's exit — after a reasonably good job for five years — was the charge of ‘racially abusing an Indian referee'. The concerned official was Dinesh Nair and the incident reportedly happened in a friendly international against Yemen last year.

Houghton faced an inquiry and it is a different matter that the AIFF could not substantiate the charge “in the absence of evidence” and decided to drop it. But the signals were clear to the Brit that his services were no longer required. Hougton's contract runs up to 2013, but he realised that going away was the best option. For one who has worked in Africa, China, the US, Uzbekistan, West Asia and Europe, this was an allegation that shook him the most. “I do not have a racist bone in my body,” was his contention right through.

The drubbing India received in the Asian Cup in Qatar, where it lost badly to all the teams — Australia, South Korea and Bahrain — in the group probably also went against him. But experts feel that despite the losses, India was not disgraced. The Australian coach, Holger Osieck of Germany, in fact was impressed by the dogged display of India. Holger was the former assistant to Franz Beckenbauer when Germany won the World Cup in 1990.

Probably, the AIFF expected much more from Houghton who was paid over $350,000 annually. Further this huge amount was pinching the association's pocket as well.

But Houghton had his ways. Like all overseas coaches, this former Fulham player and manager was taken in by the vastness of the country, the varying cultures and spread of football. Expectedly he found the infrastructure inadequate. Once in Chennai for a pre-World Cup tie he was rather amused that the main Nehru Stadium had no practice ground. That the team had to find a school ground to practise, even though it was a well-kept turf, did not go down well with him.

In fact this lack of infrastructure made him convince the AIFF to shift the training programme out of the country prior to the Asian Cup. It must be said here that the victory of India in the Asian Challenge Cup — this provided the passage for the Qatar assignment in 2011 (a feat for India after 27 years) — was easily one of Houghton's high points. Going out of the country for training as well as his way of blooding young players had their critics and admirers. He had a good understanding with the players. But in the cauldron of competition nothing matters but the result. India failed and Houghton too.

But to be fair to the Englishman, it must be said when he took over from Syed Nayeemuddin, the players and those involved with the sport felt a positive change. The players found a man who would air their views and ensure that they got a better deal with the national body.

Houghton's coaching techniques translated into some positive results.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

On the field too his coaching techniques translated into positive results at least to the extent possible. The short-built structure of Indian players concerned Houghton. The Nehru Cup success in 2007 and 2009 and in between the 2008 Asian Challenge Cup win over Turkmenistan, by a 4-1 margin, helped India to qualify for the Asian Cup in Qatar.

This gave a lot of confidence to the Indian team. Houghton by now was able to convince the national body the need for professionalism and better training methods. Training abroad as well as exposure by playing friendly matches against top teams helped India to an extent. But the losses to Kuwait, UAE and Yemen in the run-up to the Asian Cup did show the weaknesses of the team when competing at the highest level.

Houghton's selection of players, sticking to a few, even if their fitness were a question mark did not go well with the Federation.

It must be said, at Houghton's instance, AIFF took some steps such as starting the professional league, the youth development programme and more recently the decision to have a team comprising India's best juniors (Indian Arrows) playing in the I-league (in place of Mahindra United which was disbanded). All these measures are with an eye on preparing the country for the 2018 World Cup qualification.

When Houghton took over the challenging job, he had said in an interview to FIFA.com that “it is difficult to think that India could qualify for 2014 (World Cup),” considering the competition in Asia which had four slots but a strong field — Australia, Japan, S. Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China. “We could get competitive” and that was Houghton's major aim. He might have helped India to take a few positive steps forward but the fall in the rankings was not comforting.

From 117 when Houghton took charge, India slipped to 165 and now is hovering around 140. Where does that put Houghton's contribution? The man who shaped Swedish football, helped a Swedish club (Malmo) reach the European Club final (1979) believes he had the toughest coaching job of his career, handling India.

FACTFILE Highs Nehru Cup champion in 2007, 2009. AFC Challenge Cup winner in 2008. Qualified for the Asian Cup after 27 years.

Qualified for the second round of the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers in 2011.

Lows Lost all matches in the Asian Cup 2011.

Failed to make the quarterfinals in the Doha Asian Games.

Lost in the first round to Lebanon in the pre-World Cup 2007.

Lost to Maldives in the SAFF Cup final in Colombo 2008.