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Kick-off at last?

During the Nehru Cup, I felt the country rallied behind us with the passion usually reserved for the cricket team, writes Bhaichung Bhutia.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2007 01:33 IST

It’s been an amazing fortnight. Someone who’s been around as long as I have, I’ve had my fair share of highs as a professional footballer. But nothing quite matches up to the time I had last month culminating in the fabulous Wednesday night of August 30 in New Delhi. Even scoring a hat-trick in front of a 131,000 crowd at the Salt Lake stadium in a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match doesn’t match up to lifting the Nehru Cup.

Club rivalries are the life-blood of football. But what makes India different is that the national team (at least in the last 12 years I have been part of it) had little or no connect with the people. I admit, we didn’t give the people too many reasons to celebrate. But the fact that no one really cared how we fared wasn’t a happy thought. That seems to have changed over the past fortnight and changed enough for me to think that there is hope. At last, we, the India team, have struck a chord with the people.

England has a thriving football culture with some of the strongest clubs in the world. But when the ‘Three Lions’ play, they unite the disparate islands of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea fans. During the Nehru Cup, I felt the country rallied behind us with the passion and fervour usually reserved for the cricket team.

It’s been 10 years since this tournament was last held. To say that’s too long a gap would be an understatement. I hope the All India Football Federation (AIFF) now goes on to hold it every year like it used to during the tournament’s first few editions. The first advantage of playing a tournament like this is that it’s at home. And if teams are like they were this time round, it also makes for some serious football. The overall standard was better than what we are used to seeing at the domestic level. There were some great goals and not just by Indians, although I think no one bettered the one K. Ajayan plucked out of nowhere and let loose with a left-foot screamer against Syria.

For India, this tournament was a start. We’ve got to take it step by step and I would like to believe that through five matches we did just that. If we start thinking that we’ll wake up one morning and knock the stuffing out of Japan, South Korea or Australia, we aren’t even kidding ourselves — we are being plain stupid. I would even say that this is my best achievement and one of the best India has ever had in the sport.

One must give credit to the one man who believed that doing it this way was possible. I don’t know why Bob Houghton chose India to coach, but I am glad he did. He realised the importance of playing against teams that were higher — but not too much high — and those a little lower than us in the Fifa rankings. For Bob, this Nehru Cup was a stepping stone. I have always maintained we must learn from our foreign coaches simply because they come from countries that play football at a superior level.

You’ve got to see to believe the kind of respect Bob enjoys in the football world — be it in Saudi Arabia or in Portugal. If India get the best out of Bob, it will be better off as a football nation. And I am not just talking about his vast tactical awareness. Bob’s got ideas. But the onus is on us to make the best of them. Training’s fun now and the best part is that the boys are beginning to do naturally what Bob wants them to do.

When we started out early this year, Bob stressed that whenever a stopper-back was challenging a striker for an aerial ball, two of his fellow defenders would have to fall back to cut out the flick. When we train now, the defenders do this naturally. He has worked a lot on team movements and got us to think collectively, instead of as ‘strikers’, ‘midfielders’, ‘defenders’ and ‘goalkeeper’. He has also made us believe that we can ‘do it’.

He has also convinced us that attacking football pays — unlike what a lot of Indian coaches have to say, for whom an international match is still all about being honourable in defeat. What’s equally important is Bob’s demeanour. In over a year, he has not raised his voice once. But it is not as if he cares little for discipline. Once in Vancouver, during his first tour with India, the boys were reportedly having too many late nights. He just had a quiet word with them. No screaming, no abusing, no theatrics. He believes in dealing with grown-ups.

For his tactical acumen, man-management skills and training programmes, I would rate Bob as the best coach I have worked under. Really, there is no one in India quite like him. Stephen Constantine, who coached us for three years from 2002 also believed in instilling the winning mindset, and it was under him that players like Ajayan and Sameer Naik came to be noticed. And though it was under him that we won our last tournament before this, I would say that Constantine’s biggest contribution to India was his ability to shore up our fitness levels.

Now, for the future. For starters, we need to play at least 10 internationals every year. The Lebanon match is very important to keep the momentum going but if we exit from the World Cup qualifiers early, the AIFF has to arrange for friendlies. Otherwise, it would be back to the clubs and all this momentum would be lost. That would be a pity as this team has a number of good, young players and in N.S. Manju I see a future India captain. Waiting in the wings is P.C. Lalwmpuiya, Vimal Pariyar and Ashim Biswas. We can’t let them wither.

Bhaichung Bhutia is the captain of the Indian Football team.