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India bank on experience and miracles

With Iran reinstated, qualifying for quarters will be tough. India will have to fight for second spot in the group, reports Dhiman Sarkar.

india Updated: Nov 29, 2006 00:37 IST

To keep the shine on its quadrennial showpiece, FIFA has successfully resisted efforts to let all top stars participate in competitions where football is part of a multi-discipline extravaganza.

A concession to allow three senior players in under-23 squads was all that the world body would do and given the sport's global popularity it has been grudgingly accepted.

So, football in the Olympic or the Asian Games now is a competition where tomorrow's stars are groomed. It will be that way in Doha too where India start against Hong Kong on Wednesday.

The confusion over whether Iran will be allowed to extend their eight-year hold on the competition has finally been cleared and the four-time champions will start on the same day against the Maldives. Proof of how all this reshuffling has affected the organisers lay in the All India Football Federation general-secretary Alberto Colaco saying that he is not aware of the format for the second round.

Believing in miracles does you no harm but being drawn with Iran means, India will effectively have to battle for a best-runners-up spot if they are to survive the group league. Getting to the quarterfinals would be a big deal because it has been 28 years since India went that far.

As coach Bob Houghton pointed out, gleaning full points from the first two matches would be the first step. Avoiding humiliation against Iran, Asia's top-ranked team, who should top the group and join six other group toppers in the round of eight, would be the next.

With 16 teams ahead of India in the latest Asian rankings, Houghton would still have to believe in miracles. India, unlike Iraq and Jordan for instance, were exempted from playing a mini-qualifier to complete the 24-team pool only because they had participated in the last two Asian Games. At 27, India are the lowest ranked team in group D where Hong Kong are at 17 and the Maldives at 26.

True, rankings do not always reflect the true picture — India ran twice into Japan and Saudi Arabia in 2006 which caused the slump  — but it gives a fair idea of how the odds are stacked. It gets worse with four heavyweights in Jordan, Qatar, the UAE and Uzbekistan being clubbed in one group, meaning the rest could have to battle for only one best runners-up spot. 

For the moment though, India will do well to remember that they drew with Hong Kong away in a friendly earlier this year and N S Manju's matchwinner quelled the Maldives's challenge on way to regaining the SAFF Cup in Karachi last December.

Among other positives is that at least 14 in Houghton's squad of 20 have senior team experience. Sandip Nandy, skipper Bhaichung Bhutia and Climax Lawrence are the over-23 players and first team regulars. So are Surkumar Singh, Manju, Steven Dias, N P Pradeep and Manjit Singh.