The aspirations are high but ground realities harsh. And there lies the challenge for Indian football as the ONGC-Nehru Cup kicks off at the Ambedkar Stadium here on Wednesday. India meets Lebanon in the opener and the result could influence the course of the tournament.
The intensity of India’s preparation has been high this time. A profitable preparatory trip to Dubai and Barcelona has placed the team in a motivational zone but the facts they confront can be harsh. It certainly will not be easy. The team knows it. And the chief coach, Bob Houghton, knows it better.
“The boys are well prepared to accept the challenge. The trip to Dubai and Barcelona has helped us prepare really well,” said the professional from England. He was quick to caution too. “Let me tell you that no coach in the world would predict the result but I am confident India would play well.”
The key lies in India playing well in the opening match. The opponent, Lebanon, is tough and determined. Coached by Emile Rustom, the 148-ranked team includes versatile striker Mohammed Ghaddar, who struck four goals against India in the World Cup qualifiers two years ago. He could well be the difference between the teams.
On the eve of the match, Houghton once again underlined the importance of proper infrastructure. “We have to improve in all areas. Remember, the game always moves forward and we would like to play in the other team’s half.”
The coach sounded optimistic but then there was a note of caution when the name of Sunil Chetri cropped up.
Chetri, troubled by an ankle injury, has not played a full game for a long time. And Baichung Bhutia is two years older from the day he inspired the rest to rally around him at the same venue when India won the Nehru Cup.
That win was a turning point in the team’s self belief and Houghton has toiled to keep the momentum going with his immensely positive attitude.
India’s biggest challenge would come from Syria, which is currently ranked 95. The team has made remarkable progress from the day it lost to India in the Nehru Cup final here in 2007.
The Syrian coach Fazr Ebrahim admitted that he was missing a few key players but added the team would be looking to win the Cup. Sri Lanka (ranked 156) and Kyrgystan (ranked 160) complete the line-up.
Kyrgystan aims to gain experience from this tournament. Sri Lanka shares a similar sentiment.
The Delhi Soccer Association (DSA) has worked hard to get the ground in good shape after it took some pounding from the celebrations on Independence Day. Assured DSA secretary N.K. Bhatia, “We will give you an excellent pitch.”
Daily tickets (priced reasonably at Rs. 20, Rs. 30 and Rs. 50) would be on sale at the venue. Students can avail them at a special price of Rs 10.
“The idea is to get people to come and watch,” said Mr. Bhatia. A win for India on the opening day could well pave the way for the success of the Nehru Cup.
The Indian squad:
Goalkeepers: Subroto Paul and Subhasis Roy Chowdhury.
Defenders: Surkumar Singh, Anwar, Gourmangi Singh, N.S. Manju, Mahesh Gawli, Deepak Mondal and Samir Naik.
Midfielders: Steven Dias, Climax Lawrence, N.P. Pradeep, Mehrajudin Wadoo, Anthony Pereira, Renedy Singh and Syed Rahim Nabi.
Strikers: Sunil Chetri, Abhishek Yadav, Sushil Singh and Baichung Bhutia (captain).
Chief coach: Bob Houghton; Assistant coach: Savio Medeira; Goalkeepers’ coach: Marcus Pacheco; Manager: Pradeep Chowdhury.