Seldom has Indian football climbed to such dizzying heights. It was a revelation for Indian fans — used more to the ups and downs in fortunes of another set of ‘men in blue’ — to watch Baichung Bhutia’s young team surge past the higher-ranked Syrians to record their historic Nehru Cup triumph. There was no mistaking either where this new-found self-confidence of Indian play-makers and strikers to take on a superior side and prevail came from: coach Bob Houghton has evidently melded this young team so well, teaching the players to think on their feet, play to their strength, and not be affected by the opponents’ stature.
It’s a pity the Dronacharya awards are not given to foreigners — Houghton would have been a shoo-in. His effort is all the more remarkable since many foreign coaches had earlier tried in vain to give Indian football a leg-up. The All India Football Federation (AIFF)’s inadequate foreign exposure and its constant interference in team selection gave coaches limited opportunity to work with the national team. Instead, coaches shuttled between the senior and the age-group teams, never able to devote adequate time to either. Thankfully, the AIFF seems to have learnt from its mistakes and given Houghton a relatively free hand in selecting, managing and training the team. And do the results show!
This is a good time for the AIFF to address the stagnation in Indian soccer. Football has yet to evolve into a professional sport here. Unlike cricket, football is obviously not marketed efficiently. The number of tournaments has steadily fallen because the AIFF is unable to attract sponsors. The Nehru Cup triumph offers the federation an opportunity to market the ‘beautiful game’ more efficiently — which will perhaps be the best salute to this reinvigorated Indian team.