Coach Bob Houghton and his support staff have taken 29 of India’s top footballers to Portugal for a pre-season training camp. The mission - to give them the best possible preparation leading up to the Asian Cup in January next year. India haven’t featured at the continent’s highest stage for over two decades, and they have been drawn with Australia, Japan and Bahrain for the Cup, but there is a tangible buzz in the camp. Houghton though, is more realistic. “I would have to be a very brave man to say we will qualify out of the group. But we will go in well prepared thanks to this long training camp,” he said.
The team reached Portugal on the first of the month, and will be there will the end of August for the first phase of training. The agenda is simple, build up fitness and then move onto match sharpness. A rare rest day proved to be a good time to catch up with the team’s vice-captain, Renedy Singh. The ‘Bhangra Boys’ had gone to the town of Figueira da Foz, where the ‘Taj Figueira’, an Indian restaurant, played host. “The weather is great, we have been here two weeks now, so the rustiness is wearing off. Most of the boys are getting to peak fitness levels. Apart from Samir (Naik), Climax (Lawrence), who have minor injuries, and of course, Baichung, everyone is in good shape, and training hard. Jagpreet has had knee surgery, and his rehab work is going pretty well too.”
Captain Baichung Bhutia has returned to India for treatment of his hyperthyroidism. He will rejoin the team in Portugal after two weeks.
The schedule is pretty intense. Morning and evening (alternate days) training sessions, all aimed at fitness, can leave you pretty drained. When asked about the facilities, Renedy can’t stop gushing. “Our training base is at Marinha Grande. It is home to a third division club, but the field and training facilities are top-notch; better than anything we have back home. The facilities motivate us to train harder.”
No time for boredom then? “We train five days a week, and its intense, so time flies. Saturday nights we generally go out. The best part is that we have a great bunch of guys. Everyone knows each other, and we all get along, so there really isn’t any question of boredom.”
Two months though, is a long time to be away from home. Wives, girlfriend nowhere nearby. There must be some homesick (read lovesick) lads in the team hotel. Renedy laughs, “The married guys, Deepak (Mondal), Mahesh (Gawli), they miss their wives, of course.” He doesn’t say whether that answer is because they are sitting next to him at the table.
“Otherwise though, boys will be boys. We are a pretty good-looking bunch (laughing), and I can’t say the guys don’t enjoy female attention. Our hotel is also right on the beach, so that helps a little. Mehraj (Wadoo) and Subhashish (Roy Chowdhury) are the most popular with the ladies.” “It’s tough,” he says, serious again, “but we are here to train, and that’s what we focus on every minute that we are on the field.”
Houghton will keep his group together all the way till the Asian Cup. They will not return to their clubs, or play in the I-League’s next edition. There are those who doubt the effectiveness of the experiment, but the sense of camaraderie you get is unmistakable. And this just after two weeks. “We eat all our meals together. After training the team attacks the hotel buffet, and that is also bonding time. Twenty-nine boys, one room, its like being back in school. There’s a lot of fooling around. Steven (Dias) is the funnyman of the squad and there a bunch of Punjabi guys, so there’s no dearth of jokes going around.”
The team will leave their current base in Marinha Grande for Lisbon on August 1, when they enter the next phase of training. They will play as many as eight training games in Lisbon, before heading to Thailand for an international friendly. If the mood of the Bhangra Boys is anything to go by, with a little luck, Bob might just pull a rabbit out of his hat, come January.