Houghton talks past exploits, India challenge
© AFP

During a coaching career spanning five decades and a dozen countries, Bob Houghton probably thought he had seen it all in football. Then the Englishman took charge of India.

"I've enjoyed all the different coaching jobs I've had, but this is the toughest one," the 63-year-old said a day after his side lost 5-2 to Bahrain, ending any faint hope they had of reaching the AFC Asian Cup quarter-finals.

They were beaten again yesterday, 4-1 by Korea Republic, as their campaign ended without a point and with 13 goals conceded in three games. Houghton, a former Fulham player, is best known for taking Swedish club Malmo to the European Cup final in 1979, when they lost 1-0 to Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest.

Houghton cut his teeth in coaching in altogether less glorious surroundings - at little-known English minnows Maidstone United, where he was a young player-manager. After Malmo, he went on to coach the national sides of Uzbekistan and China PR, and club sides in Europe and Asia.

Asked by AFP if the high point was the final of the European Cup - what is now the UEFA Champions League - Houghton was surprisingly hesitant. "I don't know, but I suppose so," he said. "It is the biggest game in Europe, so I suppose that would be about right."

You don't know what will happen six months down the line in football, no coach does, it's just not like that in football. It's all about timing.
Bob Houghton on his future

He may be in his 60s, but Houghton shows no signs of slowing. On a bright morning the day after his India side were defeated by Bahrain, he was out on a training pitch in a Doha suburb - shorts and boots on - taking full charge of the session. There is clearly a great deal of respect for him from his players, several of whom say India's first appearance at the AFC Asian Cup in 27 years is solely down to him. Coaching India, at a tournament in the Middle East, is all a far cry from his humble beginnings.

"You never know in football," he said, any trace of emotion hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. "You don't know what will happen six months down the line in football, no coach does, it's just not like that in football. It's all about timing. I could've stayed at Malmo all my life - I got offered a 10-year contract."

His passion for the game is still burning strong - it would have to be to take on perennial underachievers India so late in his career. He seems almost to be on a one-man crusade to revolutionise football in the country.

"There's an inertia in India that makes it very difficult to get things moving," he explained. "We can't progress without the football infrastructure, but it all seems to take a long time. Hopefully we can get some infrastructure built, which is key for us to move the game forward."