Will anyone ask for Bob Houghton’s head now? (Commentary)

August 15th, 2008 - 12:24 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Abhinav Bindra
By K. Datta
Baichung Bhutia’s men had done well enough in Hyderabad till the mud and slush at the Gachibowli Stadium became so unplayable as to force the organisers to shift the final to Delhi. They did even better on a drier, greener turf in the capital by winning the AFC Challenge Cup and qualify for the Asia Cup after 24 years. All roads seemed to lead to the pretty little Ambedkar Stadium for the capital’s football fans, for they had taken an Indian victory for granted. So much so that one young spectator came armed with a banner demanding an Independence Day gift from the team. Abhinav Bindra’s shooting gold medal at the Olympic Games had made him hungrier for more.

And what better I-Day gift than the 4-1 victory over the Tajiks, which included three goals by Delhi’s very own baby-faced Sunil Chhetri. As a schoolboy, Sunil made a start in club football on the very same ground, playing for the popular City Club in the league. To have stopped anyone from going to the ground Wednesday to see “apna” Sunil playing for India would have been an act of sin invoking the wrath of the gods.

Not long ago the boy’s father had told this writer that he could not call his son on a cell phone simply because Sunil was too young to carry a mobile. He still looks too young to be given a “mobile”. But if he has begun carrying one, he would be better advised to keep the number known only to a select few.

A quick learner under coach Bob Houghton, Chhetri, in the senior company of captain Bhutia, has mastered the art of scoring goals. So similar are the two in their approach that you could easily mistake the one for the other. To score a goal, all you need to do is get the ball over the goalline and into the net.

Most times you need skill more than brute power to do that. You also need to develop a knack for openings. Opportunism, in a word. Sunil showed skill, opportunism and elusiveness of a kind seldom seen at the Ambedkar Stadium, now some sort of a mascot of a ground for the Indian football team. It was here that India won the Nehru Cup exactly a year before under brand new floodlights.

All that ugly criticism and bitter trading of charges following the defeat of Houghton’s team when it lost to the Maldives in the SAF Cup final at Colombo must now be a forgotten chapter, and one hopes there will no longer be any demands for his removal because of that one bad day in office, as they say. Going by what the players have to say, the Englishman has been doing a decent enough job.

In Houghton’s roadmap for the revival of Indian football, he plans to find it a place among the elite Asian countries. The Challenge Cup victory is a big step forward. India is now assured of a place in the 2011 Asia Cup finals.

That takes me back 44 years when the Indian team, captained by Chuni Goswami, coached by Harry Wright, also an Englishman, and managed by the late Wing Commander K.K. Ganguly, long-time secretary of the Durand Cup tournament, ventured out to Tel Aviv for the Asian Cup where they were runners-up to Israel to whom we lost 0-2. Those were better days in India’s football history. Undeniably, competition at the top is more intense now.

The journey ahead of Indian football is long and far from easy. India may be there at the Olympics. Still, more and more youngsters are seen taking to the game, and corporate houses also are showing a welcome willingness to invest. To see boys thrusting their autograph books at footballers is an encouraging sign. Only cricketers were sought for autographs. Already the Indian under-16 team is shaping up well and has qualified for the Asian Cup finals to be played in October. This latest victory over Tajikistan by Bhutia’s India has brought fresh hope and cheer.

(K. Datta is a veteran sports journalist. Hed can be contacted at dattak.2007@rediffmail.com)

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