"Bhutia not yet ruled out, rules unclear to make him official"

Doha: Uncertainty previals over Indian football team skipper Bhaichung Bhutia`s availability for the Asian Cup and the team management is now "looking into the rules" if he can be registered as an official in the case of a rule-out.

To make matters worse, Bhutia`s name was not included in the 23-member Indian squad initially issued by Asian Football Confederation on its website. His name was included in the list on Friday only.

AIFF general secretary Kushal Das told the reporters that Bhutia is yet to be ruled out of the tournament and the team management is mulling on whether he could be registered as an official to boost the morale of the team, though, the rules are not clear.

"He is not yet ruled out of the tournament. There is some time to take a decision. We are looking into the rules if he can be registered as an official," Das said.

"The question is whether the rules allow this or not. We are not certain on this as the rules are not clear. We are looking into it. But Bhutia is still in the squad as a player," he said.

Mohammed Rafi is expected to be drafted into the squad if Bhutia is ruled out and the team management has time till six hours prior to the first match against Australia on Monday.

Das said he was not aware of Bhutia`s name not being included in the initial AFC list but said AIFF sent the skipper`s name among the 23 players in the final squad out of the 37 in the provisional list.

"From our end, we have included Bhutia`s name in the list of 23-member squad submitted to the AFC. I am not aware of Bhutia`s name missing in the initial list. It could be some mistake from AFC also," Das said.

Bhutia`s name was missing in the list of 36 Indian players put up at the AFC website with the jersey number of 22 players being marked against their names. There was no Bhutia in the list till yesterday.

Today, Bhutia`s name was there in the list, which now has 37 players, but the jersey number is still to be marked against his name.

It would be a huge blow for India if Bhutia is ruled out of the tournament in which the country is taking part after a gap of 27 years.

The build-up to the tournament has been disappointing, with the team suffering heavy defeats at the hands of Kuwait (1-9) and UAE (0-5) in the limited international friendlies they played.

The morale of the team then got a beating with manager Pradip Chowdhury resigning after a spat with coach Bob Houghton. Raul Fernandes, the CEO of Gulf International Promotions which has been facilitating Indian team`s training stints in the UAE over the past few years, was named in place of Chowdhury. Bhutia, laid low with injury for most part of last year, has not played any competitive match for more than three months. He featured in only two of the nine international
friendlies India played last year -- that too not for the entire duration.

He came back home midway into the training tour of Portugal to treat his recurring thyroid problem before injuring his calf muscle during India`s international friendly against Namibia in New Delhi in mid September.

Since then he had not been able to take part in full training in India`s two-month long camp in Dubai ahead of the Asian Cup. He came to Chennai to get treatment from a sports medicine expert who too was in Dubai for a few days till last week in a desperate bid to get him fit for the continental showpiece.