Yet another disappointment

The change in venue did not bring any luck for the Indians. India drew with Lebanon 2-2, when what it actually needed was to win 3-0 to enter the next round, writes S. R. Suryanarayan.

For India’s chief coach Bob Houghton it was a big disappointment that his best efforts with the team could yield only limited results.

Ramez Dayoub gets the better of the Indian defender Surkumar Singh (right) in the second leg match at the Nehru Stadium in Fatorda, Goa. Below: India’s chief coach Bob Houghton. His plans suffered a setback with India’s debacle in the World Cup qualifiers.-PTI

Ramez Dayoub

India’s debacle in the qualifying phase of the 2010 World Cup football, it seemed, was waiting to happen. If the rain-drenched Nehru Stadium in Chennai was a bad augury then the action that unfolded after the match against Lebanon was shifted to the Nehru Stadium in Margao, Goa, confirmed the fears.

The change in venue did not usher in any luck for the Indians even if things looked rosy for a brief while. India drew with Lebanon 2-2, when what it actually needed was a 3-0 victory to get past Lebanon and advance to the next round. Earlier, Lebanon, at home, had inflicted a 4-1 defeat on India in the first leg at Saida. Thus the onus was on India to perform but, notwithstanding the tall talk by the Indian skipper Baichung Bhutia a few days before the match, that it was possible to beat Lebanon, the ground realities were different.

The 3-0 victory requirement is a stiff one, especially in a competition where no team would be ill-prepared as the nations compete to fill up the slots from the continent (it could be four or five, depending upon the play-off between AFC’s best fifth team and the Oceania winner) for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

For India’s chief coach Bob Houghton it was a big disappointment that his best efforts with the team could yield only limited results. In many ways, Houghton’s boys did just what the coach expected of them, nothing more. “Ensure India leads 1-0 at half time,” was his instruction and the nippy Sunil Chhetri, the exciting new prospect of Indian football, responded with the kind of agility that he is becoming famous for. But in a sport where the height of the players matters, even if some of the best football players in the world have been short, such as Pele and Diego Maradona, the Lebanese held the advantage.

Mohamad Ghaddar, who sank India in the first leg in Saida, came off the bench in the second half of the match and repeated his act. First he won a penalty, which he himself converted, after goalkeeper Subrata Paul’s indiscriminately fouled him, and then struck another goal to leave India fighting for a draw.

Steven Dias with a corner kick that sailed in directly ensured India a draw, but the crowd of over 20,000 that thronged the stadium knew, like the Indian team members, that it was all over for the host as far as the 2010 World Cup was concerned.

V. GANESAN

Though India never hoped to feature in the 2010 World Cup, Houghton’s brief was to provide his team the thrust to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. What hurt Houghton was the AFC’s ‘mess up’ in drawing up an elimination format that instantly ended the run of 19 countries in Asia after just one ‘home and away’ games. For a Confederation that has been stressing on improving the standard of football in Asia, this was a big let-down.

Houghton rightly pointed out that a group league system would have enabled each country to play against more than one country and to that extent gain experience and the opportunity to put up a better show. “Now we have to wait beyond 2010 to think of World Cup which is sad,” he said.

Houghton, who turned 60 on the day of the India-Lebanon match in Goa (October 30), perhaps believed that India would gift him with a victory even as his family was waiting for him to join them in the birthday celebrations in Thailand.

Houghton’s expectations of good tidings rested on India’s performance in Saida. “We were leading, and then that 20-odd minutes of madness in the second session ended it all,” he said of India’s disappointing show.

The Indian team at a training session in Chennai prior to its match against Lebanon.-K. PICHUMANI

The Indian team

Houghton worked on corrective steps before the second leg match, and felt that “home conditions” would be advantageous to India. “We must capitalise on our advantage,” he stressed.

Houghton would have loved to see his team play in New Delhi where, he felt, the ambience was perfect after India had won the Nehru Cup. The positive settings would have been a crucial advantage, something, the coach thought, Chennai would not provide. And when the rains forced the match to be shifted to Goa, it seemed a welcome change because India had its training camp there.

But then the reality check was on the field where more than Chhetri’s opportunism the misses and slips were more prominent. This did India in. Pradeep missed a sitter and goalkeeper Pal earned a red card as India meandered like a rudderless ship.