Injuries to senior players and conflicts among the coaching staff just days ahead of the Asian Cup does not augur well for the Indian team, which already faces a mammoth task of just earning a point at the continental championship.
Strikers Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri have both struggled with injuries in recent months, while manager Pradip Choudhury abruptly left the team's training camp in Dubai last month after a dispute with head coach Bob Houghton. Choudhury, a former Indian captain, was replaced by Raul Carmo Fernandes.
Ranked a lowly No. 142 in the FIFA world rankings and making its first Asian Cup appearance in 24 years, India will have its hands full when it takes on Australia in its opening match Jan. 10. After that, it faces 2002 World Cup semifinalist South Korea as well as Bahrain, which narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
"I hope it works as a catalyst for further strides ahead," Houghton told the official All India Football Federation website of the team's qualification. "OK, if we go there and perform poorly then we are back to square one."
The coach arranged an extended training camp in Dubai just ahead of the tournament. But its recent form offers little hope the team will advance to the knock-out stage, after it was humiliated 9-1 by Kuwait and 5-0 by the United Arab Emirates. Its best result was still a defeat: 2-0 loss to Iraq.
Houghton, who knows a poor showing will cost him his job, is under pressure to match the team's 2009 form when it had a rare moment of glory. It won the four-nation Nehru Cup tournament in New Delhi, beating Syria which is also in the Asian Cup, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka.
Its 2009 performance raised hopes that football could finally move out of the shadows of wildly popular cricket in India and achieve a level of success that would be expected from the world's second most populous country. The potential football market was obvious at the Nehru Cup, where most games were played to packed stadiums.
A year before its Nehru Cup victory, India beat Tajikistan in the second-tier AFC Challenge Cup final to earn direct entry to the Asian Cup. Those two success broke a drought dating back to the 1950s when the team twice won the Asian Games gold medal and reached the semifinals at the 1956 Olympics.
India's struggles in football have been blamed on poor facilities, insufficient funding and the team's limited exposure at to international competition. Hoping to change that, the All India Football Federation signed a $150 million, 15-year rights deal in December.
The rights deal for football in India "comes at a pivotal stage of this pursuit to enhance the quality of football and develop the sport across the country," All India Football Federation president Praful Patel said.
But it has been hard to see that optimism at the team's training camp, which was thrown into disarray by the departure of Choudhury. Most players were upset with Choudhury, and the team said in a statement that he "could have set aside personal differences with the coach to keep the spirits up."
The players also rejected the possibility of Choudhury returning to the training camp, angering the football federation which has elected not to investigate the matter - for now.