Monday, March 19, 2007

Bob Houghton on India's road to World Cup 2014

Veteran English coach Bob Houghton has been forced to take time away from his latest job as India's national coach to undergo a hip operation. Having also been coach of China, he can probably claim to have coached the national teams of more than two-fifths of the world's population. He was recently interviewed by the website of the world football body FIFA:

"When I went to China in 1998, that was the beginning of professional soccer and the time when their league and national team was beginning to take off. I think the parallels with India now are strong. India is now where China was almost 10 years ago. There is suddenly a lot of interest and a lot of money in the country around football as influential people want to sponsor and get involved in the game. There is already a sponsorship in the offing for 2014 FIFA World Cup effort, so I think the football will definitely take off. The league is fledgling, but it's going quiet well. There are big crowds in some places, but there is a way to go. It needs patience.

" ... the [Indian] players are good, the problem is they are physically very small. We have to do what I did in China and that is to try and find players with bigger physiques. There are very talented players in India but when we play internationally we just get out-muscled, really, particularly in Asia these days. It is not the easiest confederation when you are looking to qualify for major competitions. Australia are now in there, Saudi Arabia and Iran are giants, Japan and South Korea are much better than many people think, and China are growing too. From India's point of view, we have to look at development programs and try and find some stronger and more athletic players. But there are already some very fine footballers here. India is, after all, a football country. It has the second oldest football competition in the world after the FA Cup in England. A lot of people don't realise that there is a great football culture in India.

"The league has been going three or four years and most of the teams have become professional. Now there is a lot of sponsorship - big sponsorship for the league and some sponsorship for the clubs - so I think it could take off. They just need to make sure that it is managed well.

"[Resources now available help the job of national coach] ... especially the support for the football federation. As I said, we have a company looking to do a project with us that will go right through to the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup and help build a national centre for us, which is very important. It's a very exciting time for Indian football.

"In some areas, like Kolkata, Goa and Kerala [footballl challenges cricket in popualrity]. Of course, if the team qualified for a World Cup, then for sure it could compete with cricket because football is so much bigger globally than cricket. Cricket is the love in India but football has already taken over from hockey in terms of popularity. I don't think we need to compete with the other sports but it has been proven already that if we can get some success at international level, the interest and money will be there.

"[The FIFA World Cup finals in 2014], that's a target. The are only four qualifying slots available in Asia and with Australia now in the AFC it's become even tougher. Japan, South Korea, Iran all qualify regularly and Saudi Arabia have been to the last four World Cups. China will also be there. There are also Arab nations with the finances to go far. Plus, the central [Asian] countries like Uzbekistan are as good any team on the Asian circuit. So, it's difficult to think that India could qualify for 2014, but we'd like to be competitive. These days, if we are in a group with a Saudi Arabia or a Japan, we don't have a reasonable shout. But if we could get competitive by that stage and all the development programs continue, we have a chance.

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