Time to consolidate

A jubilant Indian team with the Nehru Cup.-PICS: SANDEEP SAXENA

Bob Houghton has injected new life into Indian football. The coach, however, is pragmatic. “This is just a small step forward at the international level,” he says of his team’s triumph in the Nehru Cup. Over to Vijay Lokapally.

A jubilant

Subhash Bhowmick, once an explosive striker and a man known to speak his mind fearlessly, described the state of Indian football most aptly. “The patient has been taken off the ventilator and has begun to walk. We now need to ensure the patient runs,” he said.

Indian football has to run; it has to make some more healthy conquests, like the Nehru Cup triumph. Thanks to the coach Bob Houghton, Bhaichung Bhutia’s adventurous bunch rediscovered the art of scoring goals and winning, as they enthralled a packed Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi on August 29. The man who worked small wonders in Sweden and China has injected new life into Indian football.

There is reason to believe this beautiful game can regain its mass base in the country. The signs were evident when the Indian team, against all expectations, won the Nehru Cup. Realistically, it was just a small step, but in terms of luring the spectators and sponsors back to the sport, it was quite a significant leap.

From the highs of a fourth place finish at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and the gold at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, Indian football has suffered on all fronts in the last two decades and more. The slide began in 1974 at the Teheran Asian Games. A 7-1 rout at the hands of China stunned the nation, but the officials and the players failed to read the future. A lack of vision and stubbornness in refusing to accept the changes that had swept Asian football left the Indians way behind. The game had become professional in Japan, China, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, but stayed an amateur sport in India.

With international victories becoming scarce, football gradually lost the support of the sponsors and spectators, not to forget the government. The annual budget for Japan’s football association amounts to nearly Rs. 1400 crore, while its Indian counterpart spends a mere Rs. 35 crore a year. Let alone a World Cup appearance, even qualifying for the Asian Games became a monumental challenge for Indian football. Old timers were distressed as the All India Football Federation (AIFF) allowed matters to drift. Outdated approach in the conduct of the sport was seen as the prime reason for India not being able to keep pace with the other nations. Defeats to even minor teams such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka shattered the morale of the football fraternity. Football in India was consigned to the backburner.

Employing a foreign coach to lift Indian football out of the doldrums was inevitable. The AIFF tried out a few, such as Ciric Milovan, Joseph Gelei, Jiri Pesek, Rustam Akramov and Stephen Constantine, but they all failed to break the resistance from the federation and club officials. Vested interests threatened to destroy the fabric of the game in India but hope was generated when the National Football League was launched in 1996-97. Zee Sports’ decision to invest in Indian football two years ago came as an elixir. And then came Houghton.

The suave Englishman, living in Cape Town, sincerely believed he could change the face of Indian football. All he demanded was unstinted support from AIFF and loyalty from the players. He got both.

Those who mocked Houghton’s methods after watching just the opening day’s practice 15 months ago are now eulogising the coach, calling him a magician.

One Nehru Cup victory has made the Indian football players heroes. But Houghton is practical. “This is just a small step forward at the international level. I have been telling the boys that winning is a habit and you win only when you score.”

Score, the Indians did. They were a revelation with their aggression and endurance even during injury time. Houghton was pleased that he was able to restore the football lovers’ confidence in this team. “I feel very happy for these boys because they worked very hard for this tournament.”

In fact, the man responsible for the revival of the Nehru Cup was Houghton, who convinced the AIFF to organise an international tournament ahead of the World Cup qualifiers. The federation did a good job by inviting Cambodia, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan and Syria, ranked above India but without seven of its key players. Houghton was also given a free hand to pick his team.

“Attack” was Houghton’s refrain. “Leave your posts if need be, but do not let up when exploring the enemy territory,” he exhorted his boys. India’s moves began deep in its own half and attacking medios N. P. Pradeep and K. Ajayan lent formidable thrust to the team’s tactical forays. Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri were a menace upfront, while the defence played an exemplary part with Surkumar Singh, Gouramangi Singh, Mahesh Gawli and N. S. Manju being the pillars of strength.

Coach Bob Houghton... the man behind India’s memorable victory.-

Coach Bob Houghton...

“We attacked as a team. We defended as a team. We fought like a team,” said Bhutia. True. In Subrata Paul the Indians had a goalkeeper who had immense faith in his defenders and his anticipation was breathtaking. It was this quality that helped Paul, in his first tournament at the senior level, shut out Maher Al Sayed in the final. Sayed, it must be said, was the most brilliant player of the tournament.

The Nehru Cup victory earned the Indian players accolades, including financial rewards, as the nation rose to salute the champions. The Indian football team’s dream run even attracted Virender Sehwag, who drove down 45 kms to cheer the boys.

Former Indian football great Chuni Goswami summed up the triumph nicely. “It is a great fillip but it also puts greater responsibility on the players,” he said. Arun Ghosh, a former national coach, observed: “Houghton has created the right atmosphere. We need to support him and encourage him to keep up the momentum.”