For footballing nobodies like India, getting to the Asian Cup finals is an end in itself. The last time they got there, in 1984, Bhaichung Bhutia was eight and the world hadn't heard of either Shah Rukh Khan or Sachin Tendulkar. And that too was after Tel Aviv in 1964 where India finished runners-up to Israel.
Similarities between 1964 and now end with India not having to play the qualifiers. With all participating teams in its group pulling out, India made the finals then without playing a match. This time the route to the tournament that's since grown in stature and size was through the AFC Challenge Cup, a competition for Asia's developing nations, which India hosted and won, in 2008.
The draw's done India no favours. To have half of Asia's representatives in the last World Cup finals in the group and a third team (Bahrain), which missed a berth in South Africa, because it lost a play-off with New Zealand, means it couldn't get worse for national coach Bob Houghton's squad.
Getting a point therefore would be, well, making a huge point. “We'll take that,” said Subroto Dutta, the chief of delegation and a vice-president with the All India Football Federation (AIFF). Speaking to HT from India's training base in Dubai before leaving for Doha, Dutta said getting the continent's elite to appreciate “the effort we put in for preparation through our performance” would mean job well done.
“Given that India hardly get to play quality opposition, this is also an opportunity to see where we stand,” Dutta said.
Largely ignorant about the kind of money, mettle and muscle needed to get noticed in the world of football, it is imperative that India take this Asian Cup as another baby step in its development. Cocooned in ineptitude for long, football has created some buzz in the decade gone by: India beat the UAE in a World Cup qualifier, won four tournaments, sold and resold its marketing rights - the latest being over R 700 crore over 15 years. A bunch of India U-14s are training in the USA and the senior national team, thanks to the AIFF agreeing to Houghton's plans, train in Portugal and the UAE.
Again, okaying Houghton's ambitious proposal, the AIFF spent nearly R 15 crore over the past eight months in getting this team ready. Given that some top footballers earn about R 2 crore a week, that may not sound much but never before has the AIFF come close to spending anything like this for one tournament. India have also played eight international friendlies since September, at home and abroad, to get ready for the Asian Cup, another first.
None of this guarantees success. What does is playing such competitions regularly. The Asian Cup is an important step in the dream that World Cup qualification is because it provides an opportunity to be among the continent's top 16. Results in the immediate context don't matter - remember India have spent significantly more and not won another 50-over World Cup, ditto the country's only Formula One team for whom finishing races still is more important than podium finishes. Putting in place a process does. If this Asian Cup becomes a trendsetter in preparing for international tournaments, if it helps draw up a roadmap for developing the national team, India's being there will be worth it.