Monday, November 29, 2010
Houghton's India facing acid test
Remember Billy Davies? He was the manager who took Derby County through the play-offs (after a sixth-place finish) for an unexpected and glorious promotion to the Premier League in May 2007 only to only to be out of a job a few months later. His time in the top tier with the big boys was torrid as it soon became apparent that the Rams were not ready for much more than sacrificial slaughter. India's head coach Bob Houghton could soon find out how the Scot felt as the Englishmen may be regretting taking his team to the 2011 Asian Cup.
Houghton has been around. This is the man who led Malmo to the final of the 1979 European Cup and has managed club teams in the United States, England, Switzerland, Canada, Greece and Saudi Arabia and the national teams of China and Uzbekistan. But despite this four-decade coaching career, he can't have had a month as bad as this November.
It didn't start too badly. A 2-0 defeat against Asian Champions Iraq in Sharjah was no disgrace for a team ranked 142 in the world. But that was soon forgotten after two thrashings meted out by West Asian teams. Kuwait plundered a 9-1 win and then shortly after, UAE scored five unanswered goals in Dubai.
If November was nasty than January could be worse, much worse. Kuwait and UAE are no continental powerhouses, especially when they field a team of youngsters, but that is exactly what 2011 Asian Cup group opponents Australia and South Korea are - with Bahrain a tidy team too. Facing three strong opponents in a major tournament may just be what Indian football needs to take it to the next level but then again...
For Houghton it would be unfortunate if a fairly solid four years or so in the sub-continent were to end with some high-profile thrashings (and end it would despite a contract running through to 2013). The Bhangra Boys last appeared at the event back in 1984, with one point, no goals scored but only seven conceded in four games. At the moment, Houghton would probably take that.
Defeating the likes of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan on home soil at the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup may have given fans a welcome win to celebrate and a place in the Asian Cup but two years on, the tournament is being eyed with uncertainly and foreboding just at the time when the nation should be getting excited at seeing the boys in blue share a pitch with the likes of Park Ji-Sung - Manchester United are comfortably the number one club in India - and Everton's Tim Cahill. The dream is in danger of becoming a nightmare as the feeling that India just aren't ready persists.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Houghton has had a squad of 30 together for months and taken them on training camps to Europe and the Middle-East. "We have come off a two-months training camp in Portugal because we qualified for the competition," he said in September. "Because facilities are poor and the standard of football is poor, the Indian FA want the national team to have the best possible chance. What that will do, it will raise expectations."
Perhaps it did but the recent setbacks mean that fans are not the only ones asking whether that money may not have been better spent improving Indian football's poor infrastructure. "The average age of this Indian side is 28," said former Mumbai and Mahindra United boss Henry Menezes. "They should have had a mix of youth and experience. They have invested in the already-established players, which looks like a wrong decision in hindsight."
Others have been harsher. Mumbai newspaper Daily News and Analysis asked: "Is Bob Houghton losing the plot?" Keeda Sports wrote: "Bob - Definitely not a builder." And Houghton's predecessor Syed Nayeemuddin was quick to stick the boot in, claiming: "I am sometimes left wondering as to why foreign coaches are given more importance than their Indian counterparts. He gets whatever he wants - foreign tours, friendly matches and excellent facilities and yet the end result is [the] same, like what I had given to the team. When I demanded milk for players, all I got was an order to concentrate on football and not catering."
It may sound like the catty Nayeemuddin should be drinking his milk from a saucer, but there have been other issues. During last month's 6-3 defeat against Yemen at home, another low, referee Dinesh Nair accused Houghton of making racist remarks and while captain Bhaichung Bhutia quickly leapt to the boss' defence, it was an unwanted hassle.
India coach is a tough job at the best of times. Standards are relatively low, with decent training facilities and pitches few and far between. The I-League's goalscoring charts are dominated by powerful but limited Nigerian strikers with an occasional Brazilian thrown in. It is no surprise then, that in the absence of his usual strikeforce, Houghton is interested in the possibility of Cardiff City striker Michael Chopra lining up for the Blues. With Indian grandparents, the former Premier League poacher is willing and has the blessing of his club. The Indian federation is interested too but said last week that it was not a top priority and, as there is a mountain of red tape that would have to be unravelled, it is highly unlikely he will play any time soon, if he does at all.
Despite drafting in help from back home, Houghton bristles at being labelled a coach that is stereotypically English, understandably so for a man who has worked just two years back in Blighty since 1974. His team however has been criticised for failings that can only be described as, well, stereotypically English: tactical rigidity, an inability to keep the ball and a preference for the direct approach.
Houghton is not averse to using the direct approach with the local federation in a bid to change how Indian football is run and, while he has succeeded in helping the nation move forward in a football sense, recent results have people questioning if he is the right man to take it to the next level. The aforementioned thrashings mean that Houghton has used up his credit for past victories and his four-and-a-half years will be judged largely on what happens in January in Qatar. At the moment, it is not looking good.
There is one consolation. At least people are talking about the national team and at least they will be watching in January - and in record numbers - it's just that they will be watching through their fingers. Those fingers will also be pointing at a certain Englishman if things don't go well, as he knows only too well. "To be honest, it might be time for someone else,'' Houghton has said. ''You have to be realistic. If India goes out of the Asian Cup with no points there's going to be an enormous outcry to sack the coach. Sometimes decisions are taken out of your hands."