History will favour India in AFC Asian Cup (Lead)

January 6th, 2011 - 8:31 pm ICT by IANS  

Doha, Jan 6 (IANS) India’s glorious past should pep them up as they prepare for the AFC Asian Cup soccer tournament after 26 years. The tournament kicks off Friday, though India will be playing their first game Monday against World Cup team Australia in a Group C encounter. India’s other opponents in the group are World Cup side South Korea and Bahrain, who narrowly missed the ticket to South Africa after losing to New Zealand in a play-off.

India qualified for Qatar by winning the eight-nation AFC Challenge Cup they hosted in 2008.

India have played twice in the Asian Cup. Chuni Goswami led them to a runners-up finish in the 1964 edition in Tel Aviv and 20 years later in Singapore they failed to get past the group stage.

India should carry their happy memories of the mid-20th century against Australia and South Korea. They defeated Australia in both their international encounters in 1956 under the captaincy of Samar ‘Badru’ Banerjee.

Just before the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, India thrashed Australia 7-1 in a friendly and in the tournament the hosts lost 2-4 as India finished fourth, which still remains their best ever performance at the Olympics.

Six years later, in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, the Indian team defeated South Korea 2-1 in the final to win their second Asian Games gold, again Goswami being the captain.

Though India have lost to South Korea regularly in the World Cup qualifiers and Merdeka Cup, their another famous win over South Korea (2-0) was also in the 1964 Asian Cup. Twentytwo years later, India again defeated South Korea 4-3, thanks to the late Krishanu Dey’s brace, in a keenly contested match in the 1986 Merdeka Cup in Malaysia.

But those were the glorious days of Indian football, when they were considered an Asian powerhouse. From the mid-80s India’s soccer stock started declining, while Australia and South Korea made rapid strides and have qualified for the World Cup from the region.

With the dawn of the new century, India’s road to recovery started, though at a snail’s pace, and Asian Cup is their first major step. Nearly Rs.160 million have been spent in the last two years to prepare the national team under Englishman Bob Houghton.

The team travelled to Barcelona in Spain, Lisbon and other cities in Portugal and Dubai for preparatory camps, but lost steam in the last leg of their preparations. They lost international friendlies, suffered injuries to key players, and the return of team manager Pradeep Chowdhury from Dubai following differences of opinion with coach made matters worse.

The team has conceded 22 goals in their last four matches, which also includes a 0-2 loss to Asian Cup title holders Iraq. Their worst defeat in the preparatory matches was a 9-1 thrashing from Kuwait.

But captain Bhaichung Bhutia puts up a brave face and says that the team is not afraid of facing the star-studded Socceroos, against whom they open their campaign at the Al Sadd Stadium here Monday. India next face Bahrain Jan 14 and end their group phase against South Korea Jan 18.

“It is a great feeling and exposure playing against some of the big names in world football and we know a lot about the well-known Australian players such as Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill,” Bhutia was quoted as saying in the media.

“Australia (world No.26) is much higher than us in FIFA rankings, but we will not be intimidated by any team in the tournament. With so many experienced players and most of them having good exposure in European football, I can see the Australian team going far in this tournament. However, we do not fear anyone and are well prepared to put up a good show,” he said.

But Bhutia knows that the Asian Cup can rejuvenate Indian soccer’s future.

“More children are definitely taking up the sport, but as of now there is severe lack of infrastructure in the country. Without full-time world-class academies it will be difficult to qualify for these tournaments as the youth are not getting the basic requirements from a young age,” he said.

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