Will coach Bob Houghton's `mantra' work?

For India under Bob Houghton, the next 12 months will be crucial, for the results during the period will determine where the nation stands in international football, writes S. R. Suryanarayan.

"Wake up! Put together all the assets. Improve the infrastructure (of football in India). Present your plan and go ahead step by step," was FIFA president Joseph Sepp Blatter's message to our country at the end of his visit to India here in April. According to FIFA, the two big countries in Asia, China and India, have a major role to play in giving football the impetus in the continent.

China has already taken the path to progress, according to coach Bob Houghton, who had worked there before taking charge of India. But then, like his predecessors (following the glorious days of Indian football in the 1950s and early 60s) who tried to give a fresh direction to the sport in India, Houghton too has begun to realise the enormity of the task. Indian football, after all, is like a puzzle that cannot be easily solved.

Houghton said recently that one year after taking charge of the Indian team, "no progress" has been made. And once again we hear of those familiar shortcomings: lack of international exposure, too much domestic football due to a cramped calendar and the never-ending conflict between national and club interests.

With so much pressure from the Asian and world bodies to improve matters, it is time for the AIFF now to decide whether India needed to improve its football standards and ensured its FIFA ranking rose higher than the current 161. As Houghton put it plainly, "a choice needs to be made" to improve football in India. On his part, India's coach has taken the positive step of suggesting to the AIFF to draw a list of 40 players, preferably from the under-23 age group who can be moulded into top-flight footballers with increased international exposure. He is of the view that these players should not be burdened with excessive domestic matches and should be kept away from the prying eyes of the clubs. These players should be kept away from inter-state competitions and local leagues, and in the bargain the AIFF should give them suitable monetary compensation.

Having had to release a few players before an important Asian Cup qualifier, because two leading clubs in Kolkata needed their services in the local league, Houghton must have realised how hasty he may have been in talking of his "vision for Indian football". It is an "unacceptable situation," he said. But then, in India it is different, and further proof of this deep-rooted malaise was reflected in the disastrous campaign that the Indian team had in the pre-Olympics.

Kerrar Muhammed of Iraq and Jerry Zirsanga of India fight for possession in a Pre-Olympic match in Chennai. India's best performance in the tournament was a 1-1 draw against Iraq, while it came a cropper against Thailand and North Korea.-K. V. SRINIVASAN

Losing is not the issue here, for in the last 50 years or more, India has not caused any ripple at the Olympic level. What was reproachable was the manner in which India approached the competition, especially at a time when there is so much talk of professionalism and stress on commitment. Houghton, though, was not there to see the frustration first hand, he was recuperating from a hip surgery in South Africa. It was Colm Toal who had to grapple with problems such as the issue of overworked players and the strange ways of the clubs refusing to release them while the country was struggling to forge a competent team.

No doubt, individually players such as Syed Rahim Nabi, Gourmangi Singh, Debabrata Roy, Rakesh Masih and Tarif Ahmed displayed zip. Tarif, in fact, even scored against Iraq — it was the only goal India scored in the competition — which was the clear favourite considering its impressive record in Asia and the nation's high ranking in the FIFA list. However, when it came to collective strength, India was completely exposed, as many observers witnessed during India's home matches, all of which were played in Chennai.

Since the pre-Olympics competition was held at a time when the National Football League was on, most of the Indian players looked tired and were prone to injuries.

For instance, Habeeb-ur-Rehman, a certainty in the team, was injured during practice on the eve of the match against Iraq, giving Toal a disappointment. Barring Iraq, which was held to a 1-1 draw, India failed to stand up to Thailand and D. P. R. Korea. "Nonetheless we gained in experience," was Toal's explanation, which seemed like a neat cover up for India's dismal showing.

How much of all these can change for the better, and how well Houghton can convince the powers that be to effectively implement his suggestions will decide the future course of Indian football. The coach's latest call for change and his selection of 27 players, a mix of experience and youth, for a string of international matches ahead has evoked a lot of interest. And prior to these international engagements, he has also scheduled a specialised three-week training camp in Portugal.

Houghton's mantra for a positive start is: `More recovery time between matches, but more exposure to better standards'. The next 12 months will be crucial, for the results during the period will determine where the nation stands in international football.