For the world's second most populous nation, the FIFA World Cup™ still seems to be a road too far. But, while the Indian team remain fodder for even the region's mid-level teams, they have shown signs of a slight recovery in fortunes.
India were rather ingloriously knocked out in the first stage of Asian Cup qualifying for 2004 by Korea DPR. This came on the back of the South Asian Football Federation Cup defeat to Bangladesh, who went on to break India's string of two consecutive SAFF Cup titles.
The team did impress in the 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifying preliminaries, when they beat Italy 1990 finalists United Arab Emirates 1-0 in the opening match and drew twice with Yemen. However, their 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign was far less exciting as they only grabbed four points from six group matches. They eventually finished in third place, three points behind group winners Japan and Oman.
Despite the disappointment, the arrival of Englishman Bob Houghton has breathed a new lease of life into the team since he took over in May 2006. Under the former China and Uzbekistan coach, the new-look India took the Nehru Cup by storm, trouncing Kyrgyzstan 3-0 before overcoming a resilient Syria 1-0 in the final to clinch the title for the first time in history.
This success came as a timely boost for Indian football, reigniting the passion among the faithful. The nation's 11-year domestic league is attracting increasing attention and interest from fans across the country. With many of the nation's hopefuls coming up through the ranks, coach Houghton will have abundant options when India start their run-up for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ against Lebanon in a two-legged encounter on 8 and 28 October.