Goalkeeper Subrata Pal talks about the difference the former Fulham striker Houghton has made since becoming coach.
Bob Sir's Indian summer
The changes to Indian football since Bob Houghton took charge of the national team can be measured in many ways. Before his arrival, tactics used to consist of hitting the ball as hard as possible and chasing after it. Houghton's arrival in 2006 helped drag Indian football out of the Stone Age, as the prolific former Fulham striker drew up a plan for every player. Indian football has a lot to thank the man the players refer to as "Bob Sir".
"We didn't know what football was. After the arrival of Bob Sir, we realised what football really is," says the goalkeeper Subrata Pal. "I played for the national team before Bob Sir's arrival and I know the difference he has made. It was just kick and run for us earlier: kick the ball as hard as you can and try to save goals. "But after working under him, we understand the tactical nous of the game, we know about the shapes and formations. "Now we know that every player has a different role to play on the field. All of us now know what we need to do on the field. If this happens, we do this, if that happens, we do that. This is the big difference. We realised all of us have a duty to perform on the field."
The efforts of Houghton have started to bear fruits as India have qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar, the first time they will be playing in the finals since 1984. The trip to Qatar comes courtesy of the triumph at home in the eight-team AFC Challenge Cup last year, in which India defeated Tajikistan 4-1 in the final. A year before Pal had turned in an impeccable performance in the Nehru Cup, keeping a clean sheet in the final against Syria to win India's first trophy under Houghton. Regaining the Nehru Cup is high on India's agenda, with the team training in Dubai before moving on to Barcelona as facilities in their own country are not considered good enough.
"Bob Sir's thinking is at a very high level, nobody in India can think at the level he does because he has played in the top English league," Pal said. "He understands his players, their needs and mentality, and deals with all of them on an individual level." Pal, 22, however, does not have the same respect for the coaches at the I-League clubs. According to the Asian Football Confederation, eight of the 12 coaches in the I-League do not meet the qualification standards for the AFC Champions League as they do not have the minimumrequirement of an AFC A licence. "I don't want to criticise anyone, but there are very few good coaches in India," said Pal, who joined Pune FC this year after excelling for the two Kolkata giants, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
"The way Bob Sir teaches you, there are few in India who have that kind of experience or knowledge. We train in one way with Bob Sir and then when we go back to the clubs, it is very different. There is no system at the clubs. Nobody bothers to tell you anything. "There is a big difference between what the coaches tell us at the clubs and how Bob Sir works with us in national team. "The problem is our coaches don't seem to want to learn. If they just follow what Bob Sir is telling them, it will be really good for Indian football. It will be easier for us when we come to the national team." Houghton has repeatedly expressed his frustrations at the lack of qualified club coaches in India, but now he is getting support from Fifa and AFC. The world and continental governing bodies have been putting pressure on India to improve the administration and league in a bid to revive the sport in the country, ranked 147th in the world. Pal says there have been improvements, but believes there is still a lot to be done. "Things are a lot better than before. We used to travel in trains and live in dingy rooms under the stands at stadiums," he said.
"Now we travel by air and stay in five-star accommodation. So things are improving for us. But the problem is we don't have a training ground in India. Sir has spoken about it a lot of times, but we still don't have training facilities. "This is why we had to come here to Dubai to train. After this we will be going to Spain, to train at Barcelona. "If we had good training facilities and atmosphere in India, we could stay at home. "If we can train in India, it is better for us. We will feel at home in the familiar surroundings and the atmosphere will suit us."