The Indian national team has reached the finals of the Nehru Cup for the first time in the tournament's 25 years of existence and our Rhys Mascarenhas caught-up with Novy Kapadia, football commentator and expert, who has been following our national team for decades, to get his views on an improved Team India.
Do you think the Indian team's standard has improved over the last 6 months?
The senior national team has not played an international football since November 2006, so question of judging improvement does not arise. Yes, India in 2007 ONGC-Nehru Cup is playing better than in the 2007 Asia cup qualifiers. That is mainly because national coach, Bob Houghton managed to get a month long training camp with the senior team, including an exposure trip to Portugal.
Previous national coaches, Sukhvinder Singh and Syed Nayeemuddin were never granted similar opportunities, when they were with the national team in recent years, despite repeated requests by both of them. By putting focus on the national team, and getting players he wanted, Houghton has managed to improve the India team's standards. If such exposure trips and long training camps had been granted to Indian national coaches when they were in charge, the national team would also have shown improvement in the past. But ironically even sixty years after Independence it is only foreign coaches who get attention from AIFF. The late Milovan Ciric in 1983/84 got five star hotel facilities for the Indian team and now Houghton has managed to get the AIFF to focus on the national team and build up an image of Team India, instead of just organizing domestic football.
What according to you are the main reasons for the Indian team's success/decline?
The major factor is Baichung Bhutia's return to form. In 2006 he played eight matches and did not score a single goal. In the ONGC Nehru Cup he has scored three in four matches in the league phase. His mobility, reflexes and determination has returned, which augurs well for Indian football. For making Baichung spend more time in pre-season training rather than in TV studios and reviving his interest in the national tea, Bob Houghton deserves credit, as Baichung is still India's only player of international class (Asian level). His distribution and football sense makes all the difference
Another reason is national coach Bob Houghton's shrewd planning which has rejuvenated Indian football. He is gradually revamping the Indian team by introducing players who fit into his game plan. The player's mindset also been gradually changed and India is now a more attacking team, evident in the match statistics at the ONGC Nehru Cup where India had more attacks on goal than even Syria in the league phase. After a year with the national team Bob Houghton (from England), has got his message across perform or perish, which has ensured that no player can take his place for granted.
Experienced goalkeeper Sandip Nandy was replaced by Subrata Pal in the Nehru Cup. Similarly Gouramangi Singh was converted into a useful central defender and played regularly after the injury to Deepak Mondal. Extended runs to Sunil Chetri and Steven Dias have boosted their confidence. Younger players are being given exposure gradually and only if they fit into the game plan of the coach and this has led to success.
In which areas do you think our Indian team lacks when compared to world class teams like Brazil.
Strength, height and weight. Many outfield players in international football, including Brazil have players who weigh 75 kgs and over and defenders and strikers are invariably 6 feet tall. India lacks physically imposing players and except for Baichung Bhutia nobody who has the skills to change a game, with skill.
Who do you think is the most promising player from the Indian team at the current Nehru Cup?
Quite a few have given good performances. Goalkeeper Subrata Pal is in the mould of Bhaskar Ganguly (1982 Asiad captain) bold, daring and with good reflexes. N.S. Manju is composed and tackles and covers well. Gouramangi Singh adequate in his new role as central defender. N.P. Pradeep, India's Steven Gerrard, a box to box midfielder, with good work rate and powerful shots at goal. Steven Dias, measured crosses, improved fitness and shots at goal but fades against hard tackling defenders. Sunil Chetri, crafty, good football intelligence, calm finisher. Difficult to choose the most promising player but for me it is N.P. Pradeep because without him India's midfielder lacks pace and there is no replacement for him.
Many thanks for talking to us!
the interview was conducted by Rhys Mascarenhas (August 2007)