Houghton prepares in earnest
India became the first country to book their spot in the 2011 Asian Cup when they won the AFC Challenge Cup on home soil last year. They will also be the first to launch their preparations for the tournament in Qatar, when the team assemble in June next year after the domestic season and remain together for eight months until the event in January, 2011.
"Next summer, from June we will keep this team together until the 2011 Asian Cup," said coach Bob Houghton, as he prepares to leave for Barcelona with the team after a 12-day training camp in Dubai. "They won't go back to their clubs in September, as they have done over the last two years. We will keep them together from when the training camp starts in June next year, right through until the Asian Cup finals.
"I think that would give us an early fair chance to get the boys well-trained together for a long time, organised, psychologically confident that they have prepared well." India were drawn in the same group as UAE for the Asian Cup qualifiers, but their victory in the AFC Challenge Cup gave the Bhangra Boys a direct ticket to the finals. Their qualification is, of course, good news for the UAE as well.
The national team only have to beat Malaysia at home in January to book one of the two spots from the group. The other team in contention is Uzbekistan. While the UAE have qualified for every staging of the Asian Cup since 1980, with the exception 2000, India will be making only their third appearance since 1960. They finished second in 1964 and made their last appearance in 1984. With the profile of the sport growing in a country dominated by cricket, the Indian administrators, aided by direction from AFC and Fifa, are keen to make a good impression in Qatar.
The can certainly not be accused of not preparing properly. President of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, initially wanted to keep the team together from last month. "About three months ago there was a suggestion by our president that we actually keep our boys together from now until 2011," said Houghton, a former striker with Fulham. "We met the clubs and the state associations in Delhi and discussed it. They were not overly enthusiastic about it, but were prepared to do it."
The AIFF even promised to compensate the players for the loss of earnings, agreeing initially to pay the players the same amount they would earn with the clubs. The plan, however, did not materialise. "You can't keep the national team together for 19 months," said Houghton. "It's just not a viable prospect for the long term. But what we believe is that qualification for the Asian Cup was such a big event for us and that success in 2011 would be a huge benefit to Indian football.
"The only way Indian football is going to move forward is if the national team starts to get some results. So as soon as we qualified, we tried hard to make the clubs and state associations aware that it's in their interests this senior national team does very well." Houghton's plan is to camp in Portugal for most of those eight months and play regular matches against club sides to keep the squad match fit.
"What we thought we will do is go to Europe because it would be very difficult otherwise," he said. "If we were in India, for example, we must play three or four games a month. "For that, you need to fly in countries to play or we need to fly out to play. It is expensive and logistically it is difficult. "So we will probably go to Portugal I would think, where we can play local league teams on a weekly basis without travelling very far. That's the plan.
"We gradually try to improve the standard of opposition that we play because we know that about 17 months from now we are going to play the very best in Asia." The Englishman, however, refuses to make predictions about India's chances at the tournament. "It is always a mistake to set goals," he said. "If you set a very low goal, if you say, 'OK what we want to do is get a point', then if you win the first game, all the players will think, 'OK we have achieved much more, we can't be that good'. If on the other hand, you say we would like to get to the final, that is too big a task to put in front of people. So we will see how we go when we get there."