We may be on the brink of momentous times for Indian football, but before that, there is a long, and exceedingly hard, road to travel for Bob Houghton and his band of 30. Last night the team prepared to embark on a two-month training camp to Europe, but for Indian football, this is the beginning of a much longer journey — one that is set to culminate in 2018.
Head coach, Bob Houghton, addressed the media on the eve of the team’s departure, and at this stage there were questions aplenty, but the answers, not so many.
The team for the camp is made up of 29 players who ply their trade in the I-League, the nation’s premier football league, plus Sunil Chhetri, who plays in the US and will join later. The long preparation camp is for India’s first appearance at the AFC Asian Cup in 26 years. And for Houghton, the I-League is not good enough to produce a team that can compete at Asia’s highest level. “A national team is only ever as good as the domestic league. Right now, we need a far bigger commitment from all the clubs in the I-League. The league is not conducive to developing footballers of the highest level. There is a lack of youth development and too many disparate domestic competitions.”
Thanks to the lack of quality in the league, the national team has been handed central contracts, and will not play for their clubs in the next edition, if and when it happens. Instead, they will spend the next two months in Portugal, first in a sleepy town 200km from the capital Lisbon, where they will train, and then in Lisbon itself, where they will play as many as 10 practice matches. At a time when the buzzword here is development, the team will follow in hallowed footsteps. They will train at Sporting Clube de Portugal’s Academia Sporting, and academy that has produced the like of Luis Figo, Simao, Ricardo Quaresma, Nani and of course, Cristiano Ronaldo.
When asked whether six months away from competitive football will blunt the team’s edge, Houghton said, “When the boys play the international friendly in front of 100,000 people in Bangkok, there will be a competitive edge.”