Qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup after a gap of 27 years was an apt reward for a career of hardwork and exemplary play from India captain Baichung Bhutia. National team coach Bob Houghton recognises this and is pulling out all stops to ensure Bhutia gets his moment under the sun.
Speaking to HT from Doha, the coach said he has included Bhutia in the 23-man squad, even though a calf strain has ruled him out of Monday's opener against Australia — who include a plethora of talent who have excelled in the EPL including the likes of Lucas Neil, Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell.
“Baichung deserves to be here. The way he has led this team over the past decade has been inspiring and is a pointer to youngsters on professionalism. Everyone in the team wants him to be a part of the action, and the entire unit is empathetic about his situation.”
Houghton was hopeful that Bhutia would overcome his fitness worries in time for the second Group C match against Bahrain on Jan 14, although he admitted there was a chance that Bhutia won't feature in any of the matches. “The way things stand we can only hope and see how he responds to the physiotherapy. Having him on the field will be a great boon for us, he can do things that nobody else in the team can do and his record proves that.”
Centreback Gourmangi Singh, too, was waiting on the physio's report on Bhutia. “Baichung leads the team by example and in moments of doubt we turn to him. Having him for even a part of the event will benefit us immensely.”
Australia are managed by German Holger Osieck, who was coach Franz Beckenbauer's assistant in the victorious West German team at Italia' 90, and Houghton admits that the gulf in class between the two teams could show on Monday.
However, the one ray of hope for India is their record against the Socceroos, winning both their matches against the men from Down Under, on their own soil no less. The most famous of those wins was a 4-2 win in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when a hat-trick by Neville D'Souza inspired the visitors to a thrilling quarter-final triumph.