Together, the three of them were the bedrock of the senior national team for the whole of the Noughties and a bit more, guiding the team to two successive Nehru Cup titles in 2007 and 2009. But within a span of 12 months, Bhaichung Bhutia, Mahesh Gawli and Climax Lawrence, hung up their boots.
Even by its usual standards, it has been a turbulent year-and-a-half for Indian football, left rudderless by the departure of Bob Houghton last April. And as if the retirement of three veterans was not enough, the national team has reached its nadir in terms of world rankings.
The good news for the new coach, Wim Koevermans, and the relatively young team led by Sunil Chhetri is that there is only one way to go now --- up, starting with the Nehru Cup that kicks off on Wednesday.The past two editions of the invitational tournament have been won by India. But while completing the hat-trick will prove to be a major rejuvenator, it will be no cakewalk, what with two of the hosts' strongest opponents --- Syria and Cameroon --- also hoping to give some competitive exposure on the international stage to their players of the future.
On the prowl
The Indomitable Lions have not brought along their first-choice players, most of whom are busy plying their trade in Europe. Instead, the former Olympic gold-medallists are relying on homegrown talent, like Thierry Makon, the top scorer in the Camerooni-an league, and Paul Roland, the right-back who has fond memories of Beijing 2008.
"We have two national teams — one comprised of professionals who play abroad, and one based in home," said coach Emmanuel Bosso. "This (home-based) team is the one that'll take over in the future."
Syria team manager Mwafak Fathallah feels likewise. Three of his squad members, including goalie Mosab Balhous, were part of the team that lost to India in 2009, Syria's second successive loss in a Nehru Cup final. The rest, though, are greenhorns who play domestically.
"These guys went to the London Olympic qualifiers,” said Mwafak at his team's practice session. “It’s our future national team."