Exclusive Interview of National Football coach Bob Houghton

National coach Bob Houghton spoke to the-aiff.com about the progress made in the national team and also about Indian players making their mark in the international arena. Here are the excerpts:

1) How would you describe the state of Indian football when you first took the national team job? What were the main challenges you felt needed to be overcome?
A) We have made some progress if you compare it from some years ago. We were 163 and now we are 142 in FIFA rankings and we have advanced in Asian circuit as well and we have moved from 27 to 20. We have qualified for the Asian Cup finals so in that regards we have made progress and also if you look at the results though we recently lost to Hong Kong but that was our second defeat in 17-18 matches. So I think we have made progress with the senior team. And also we have made some good progress with the junior teams. The performance by Under 16 team last year was also spectacular. We are ranked 17th in Asia and we have managed to get U-13 camp and U-19 camp. So in all levels we are making progress and particularly with the AIFF Training centre, GOA, where we kept the U-16 boys in the camp for 18 months which made a big difference in their performance. There is one big challenge that is January 2011 and which is just less than two years from now on when we play in the Asian Cup finals. In between we need to get the team well prepared as we can. But of course now we have I League, Federation Cup and then we have AFC Cup for the Clubs that’s Dempo and Mohun Bagan. It is quite difficult to see on the horizon a big enough gap and a long enough time to get the players together to get the advancement of the need.

2) Do you feel the infrastructure in the country is improving rapidly enough or maybe more importantly coherently enough?
A) Infrastructure, well unfortunately in this country is almost nonexistent for football I am afraid. There are very few quality stadiums and very few training grounds. I hope the FIFA’s win in India with India project will help in developing couple of good facilities for us.

3) With Indian players getting a chance to appear for trials in foreign club do you think Indian football is making its mark in the International arena?
A) Yeah it is definitely making its mark and it won’t be long before the first one goes and does well and then many more will follow. When I went to China in 1998 there were no Chinese players playing outside of China and after 8 years there were seven or eight that played in Premiership so once Clubs become aware that there are good Indian players then they will take more of them.

4) Apart from the AIFF, who else needs to be involved in the game’s development – does more help need to come from the government or the private sector for example?
A) It’s a combination of things that makes a successful national team in football as it is a worldwide game. It’s not just a few countries that you are competing against it’s the whole world. And if you are seriously capable to compete you need all help. You need all the sponsorship that we getting in development of the game and we need state associations to be accommodative. Also we need State Association and I League clubs to work on the development of the players so all need to come together to have a successful national team.

5) You’ve talked about the need to recruit taller, more athletic players, something Japan did during their development – how is that progressing? Generally, how much are you competing with cricket for young Indian kids looking for a sport to play?
A) We have been getting some bigger players in the team though it is not happening quickly and it can’t happen quickly as we have to identify them when they are young and keep working with them. We will get some bigger boys and in current team also we have some bigger boys.

6) As someone who has taken a club to the European Cup final, do you envisage a point in the future when Indian players will have what it takes to be playing regularly in the competition?
A) Why not. When I took the club to the European club final the whole of that team came from a city where we were based – Malmo—and it is a very small place 250,000 people. And we got into the level as the development program was very good and therefore if we work hard on improving the quality of younger players then I don’t see why an Indian player shouldn’t be like Japanese or Korean.

7) How much of a watershed was it to win the AFC Challenge Cup and qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup? Has it given the players a winning mentality? Can it act as a catalyst for further strides forward?
A) I hope it works as a catalyst for further strides ahead as that’s what I like to think. Ok it was a big success and the boys played and got along very well. But what’s really required now is the victory to act as further incentive for the players to work hard and get fitter to be better players and for the players coming behind to recognise it. We can make those achievements if we work hard and get organised so I don’t think that it could be a watershed. Ok if we go there and perform poorly then we are back to square one but if we can prepare and that is important that we prepare properly and give a good account for ourselves with best clubs and best teams in Asia. IF we do then it will do two things – one it will raise the portfolio of the game and secondly it will give us some belief that somewhere down the lane we can qualify for the World Cup.

8) Recently AFC got out with a rule that we can have four foreign players in the I League and out of them one should be from Asian country. How much impact would it have on our Indian players when it comes to playing together?
A) Well because I am a national team coach. I will be happy if there are no foreigners in the National squad. You have to accept the fact that clubs love foreigners because they give fans a bit more interest. I suppose one thing the foreigner does for us is they make us aware of the size of the players we are going to play against. If there were no foreigners let’s say if there were no Odafe’s then we will be totally less aware of the size of the opponents and then it will be very difficult to deal with them.

9) You have been following the I League and you have been in favour of it always? How much do you think that it has improved as far as playing standard goes?
A) It has improved a lot as compared to its previous editions and you can see it how better the game is now as compared to what it was two and half years ago. If Indian football has to make that great strides, forward then we really need I League to be the engine for that move because the national team will only be good when players coming from I league. Now if I League clubs are organised they have good coaches, good training and they improve the boys then the national team will be good. If the work done at the club levels is not good enough then it will be very difficult for us to take steps forward so I League is really the engine for it.

10) So as a chief coach of the national team the way you train the team do you have plans to get the same structure to the club levels as well?
A) What we are doing for the clubs is that we are bringing all the club coaches together on a regular basis. We just had them together during our national camp at Goa last month and when we have our next camp we will get them together again and we will try and get someone from overseas so that our coaches also get regenerated and they can get fresh ideas. So that’s where I think we can help the most.

11) With most of your senior players getting old have you identified your bench strength and can you name some players who will replace the senior team?
A) Sunil would be around as he is young. This is the job of all coaches to coach the team in a way that new ones can replace the old ones so of course that’s what we are doing. Are the ones coming behind capable of doing is what we have to see when they get a chance. But for sure we will be working hard with the U-19 team, the Olympic team which is U-21 that will provide some base to them. I am watching a lot of youngsters on regular basis and I know all the youngsters now playing in the I League. If they keep on playing well then they will be there in the team irrespective of what their age is. If the team keeps doing well then we might go into the 2011 Asian Cup finals with the same squad and at the same time it is for the younger ones to push themselves for the reckoning and if they get a chance then they have to capitalise on it and perform. So the challenge is for everybody – challenge for youngsters to make their way into the team and challenge for those who are in the team to perform and remain at the time. There are few I have identified – when we played in Hong Kong Rakesh Masih made his debut and he was good and the good thing is Anthony Pereira has come back from his injury, Sushil Kumar Singh and Nirmal Chettri are few who can make it but everything would depend upon their performance.

Source: Dwarka Parichay News & Information Services