India's Durand Cup, started in 1888, is the second-oldest football competition in the world after England's FA Cup. Yet the fact remains that football has long taken the back seat to cricket in India, and their qualification for the 1950 FIFA World Cup (which they then declined to enter) remains the last time they have come close to participating at the highest level.
Their overwhelming victory at the recent AFC Challenge Cup, however, marked a revival of footballing fortunes in the country. Under Englishman Bob Houghton, the Southern Asians took the tournament by storm, sweeping past the likes of Turkmenistan and Myanmar to reach the final, in which they sensationally thrashed Tajikistan 4-1.
A significant reward for winning the title was that India was guaranteed a place at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup: their first qualification for the continental showpiece since 1984.
"I'm very satisfied with the team's performance, and their success has sparked a lot of excitement and passion for football across the country," the former China and Uzbekistan coach told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "Football in India has also made a giant leap forward at club level, with the first professional Indian League beginning this year."
For the globe-trotting Houghton, whose coaching career has spanned 30 years and ten different countries, the time he has spent with India since he took over in 2006 will always remain a cherished memory.
"I've had two very happy years with India," the 60-year-old reflected. "During this period, the team has played a total of 23 games and we've only lost three. In the process, we won the Nehru Cup in 2007, as well as this Challenge Cup victory."
During his two-year tenure, the team has undergone a swift and seamless transition, a fact of which Houghton is particularly proud. "At the very beginning I made many changes to the team, but now we have a relatively stable first eleven," he commented. "Quite a few young talents have broken into the senior side, while the experienced players also have key roles."
The consistent progress that Indian players have made has so impressed Houghton that he has strongly encouraged them to move to Europe, which has proved such an important path to improvement for many other Asian nations.
"When I coached China in 1998, they had no overseas-based players - they simply didn't believe in themselves. But after the team's encouraging results, like the win over Japan in the EAFF Championship, some top players, like Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai, made high-profile transfers to European clubs."
For Houghton, it is high time for India's hopefuls to follow in the perhaps daunting footsteps of their continental counterparts. "We have a host of talented players like Sunil Chetri, who has the potential to earn a move to Europe," he said, singling out the 24-year-old ace striker, who scored a hat-trick against Tajikistan in the AFC Challenge Cup final. "We must make the Indian people believe their players can make it."
While the Challenge Cup triumph ignited a nationwide football craze in India, Houghton saw the achievement as only a small step on the way. "Qualifying for the Asian Cup is only our first goal, and next we'll see about booking a place at the 2018 World Cup."
To achieve this lofty goal, Houghton expressed high hopes of continuing his tenure. "My contract expires at the end of this year, but both the AIFF and I are keen to extend it," he explained. "I'm aiming to develop a new generation that will make India proud in Asian competition in the years to come."