India's U-23 team secured their passage through to the second qualifying round for the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 following a penalty shoot-out victory over Myanmar on Wednesday. The result may look significantly less convincing compared to Australia's 12-0 aggregate triumph over Chinese Taipei, however, the success came as a massive boost for Indian football, reigniting the passion for the game across the sub-continent.
Despite the victory, few would choose to bet on India in the next stage of the competition against the likes of Iraq, Korea DPR and Thailand in Group E, given the differences in pedigree and experienced of their prospective opponents. But coach Bob Houghton's side can at least take heart from the support of their fanatical fans and perhaps draw inspiration from their showing at the 1956 Olympics, where they narrowly missed out on the bronze medal after losing to Bulgaria in the third place play-off.
A proud past
At senior level, India have long been regarded as strugglers on the continental stage, with their latest disappointment coming in last year's qualifying campaign for the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, which saw them suffer six straight defeats at the hands of Group A opponents Japan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The results may look unsurprising considering their status as the 157th placed team in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking , but what many people do not realise is that India has a rich footballing tradition. The Durand Cup, which was inaugurated in 1888, is one of the oldest football tournaments in the world and the Kolkata based Mohun Bagan, formed in 1889, is the oldest club in Asia.
Their status as one of the continent's pioneering footballing nations aside, football in India enjoyed its golden years in the 1950s and 1960s when they won the Asian Games on two occasions (1952 and 1962). On the international stage, India also qualified for the 1950 FIFA World Cup™, but they declined to participate after FIFA prohibited teams from playing barefoot.
India's success proved to be short-lived and in the 45 years that followed, standards began to slip. That was until the formation of the National Football League (NFL) in 1996 and the introduction of foreign coaching staff for the national team by the All India Football Association (AIFF) in 2002.
The English teachers
The Olympic team's victory over Myanmar came three weeks after the appointment of Irishman Colin Toal as technical director of its talent development programme. He also guided the U-23 side through the two-legged qualifying round in the absence of Englishman Bob Houghton.
In fact, former China and Uzbekistan coach Houghton became only the second foreign coach in 2005 when he replaced Stephen Constantine, who has arguably laid the foundations for an ever-improving India team during his four-year tenure.
Constantine's achievements with India includes guiding the U-23 side to become LG Cup champions in 2002 and two silver medals with the senior team in the Afro-Asian Games in 2003 and the SAF Games one year later. Having taken the Indian football to new heights with his football expertise, Constantine became a footballing icon in the country.
"Stephen is the reason that Indian football has improved so much over the last three years." India captain Baichung Bhutia was recently quoted as saying.
Constantine may have not taken the country to the level where they can compete against the continent's best, but at least he has planted the seeds for a successful Indian side in years to come.