Houghton sets out Indian vision
After a lifetime on the training pitch, veteran coach Bob Houghton has been forced to take time away from his latest job as India's national coach to undergo a hip operation.
Recovering at his home in the picturesque coastal village of Gordon's Bay, on the southern Cape coast in South Africa, he took the time to reflect on his latest challenge in one of the most populous nations of the world. The English-born coach has been in charge of India's national side for the last nine months and looking forward to vastly increasing the profile of the game on the Asian sub-continent.
Previously coach of China, Houghton can claim to have coached the national teams of more than two-fifths of the world's population. His varied career has also taken him to South Africa, Sweden, USA, England, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Greece and Switzerland.
Houghton announced his arrival as a coach of genuine merit when he led the unfashionable Swedish outfit Malmo FF to the European Cup final in 1979 - this when he was just 30 years old. Two years ago, he came close to taking Uzbekistan to the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the central Asian nation losing out narrowly in a play-off.
His latest adventure came when the All India Football Federation appointed him as head coach of the country's national side on 20 June 2006, and Houghton spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about the challenges entailed in taking India to the next level.
FIFA.com: You have been away from India for a while to undergo surgery. How did it go and when are you expected back?
Bob Houghton: It has gone well and I'm hoping to be back at the end of March when the Olympic team play at home against Thailand. I'm hoping to get back for that one, not to actively coach them but to at least be there for the game. Colin Toal has taken over from me in the interim and the team has started quiet well and are hoping to go progress in the qualifiers.
What is the potential for football like in India? It is, after all, one of the world's biggest countries.
When I went to China in 1998, that was the beginning of professional soccer and the time when their league and national team was beginning to take off. I think the parallels with India now are strong. India is now where China was almost 10 years ago. There is suddenly a lot of interest and a lot of money in the country around football as influential people want to sponsor and get involved in the game. There is already a sponsorship in the offing for 2014 FIFA World Cup effort, so I think the football will definitely take off. The league is fledgling, but it's going quiet well. There are big crowds in some places, but there is a way to go. It needs patience.
What about the playing potential?
Yes, the players are good, the problem is they are physically very small. We have to do what I did in China and that is to try and find players with bigger physiques. There are very talented players in India but when we play internationally we just get out-muscled, really, particularly in Asia these days. It is not the easiest confederation when you are looking to qualify for major competitions. Australia are now in there, Saudi Arabia and Iran are giants, Japan and South Korea are much better than many people think, and China are growing too. From India's point of view, we have to look at development programmes and try and find some stronger and more athletic players. But there are already some very fine footballers here. India is, after all, a football country. It has the second oldest football competition in the world after the FA Cup in England. A lot of people don't realise that there is a great football culture in India.
And there are now plans for a fully professional league.
The league has been going three or four years and most of the teams have become professional. Now there is a lot of sponsorship - big sponsorship for the league and some sponsorship for the clubs - so I think it could take off. They just need to make sure that it is managed well.
Does it help your job as national coach that there are these resources now available?
Absolutely, especially the support for the football federation. As I said, we have a company looking to do a project with us that will go right through to the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup and help build a national centre for us, which is very important. It's a very exciting time for Indian football.
Will football ever have the capacity to challenge cricket in terms of popularity and passion?
In some areas, like Kolkata, Goa and Kerala. Of course, if the team qualified for a World Cup, then for sure it could compete with cricket because football is so much bigger globally than cricket. Cricket is the love in India but football has already taken over from hockey in terms of popularity. I don't think we need to compete with the other sports but it has been proven already that if we can get some success at international level, the interest and money will be there.
And how realistic is India's aspiration to qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals in 2014?
Well, you know, that's a target. The are only four qualifying slots available in Asia and with Australia now in the AFC it's become even tougher. Japan, South Korea, Iran all qualify regularly and Saudi Arabia have been to the last four World Cups. China will also be there. There are also Arab nations with the finances to go far. Plus, the central European countries like Uzbekistan are as good any team on the Asian circuit. So, it's difficult to think that India could qualify for 2014, but we'd like to be competitive. These days, if we are in a group with a Saudi Arabia or a Japan, we don't have a reasonable shout. But if we could get competitive by that stage and all the development programmes continue, we have a chance.
Looking at your own career and all the diverse destinations, it begs the question: why you have wandered so much?
I think the thing about English coaches, and this is a complicated issue, is that England is very much a country of managers. It is the only place in the world really that's got the likes of Alex Ferguson and others who are really managers. And the coaches are really very second rate-citizens there. I suppose Carlos Queiroz might not like me saying that, but if you look at all the big clubs, everyone knows the managers, but the coaches are anonymous.
If you really want to be a coach, you have to go outside of England. There the coach is the most important man at the club and he is supported by a technical director or a general manager. The coaches doesn't have to worry about the business end, the transfers and contracts, but can be out on the training pitch. England is not the place to be really. When I worked at Bristol City, which was my first managerial job in England, I would have been better off being a bank manager, such was the time I had to spend on financial issues.
Would you ever be tempted back there?
No. I've had a few offers through the years but never been tempted.