Indian revolution begins with Socceroos test
Doha: India and Australia, whose main sporting rivalry is on the cricket pitch, switch codes to soccer at the Asian Cup on Monday with Australia the overwhelming favourites to hand out the equivalent of an innings victory.
Australia are also among the favourites to lift the Asian Cup while India, appearing in the tournament for the first time in 27 years, are just hoping to escape the kind of beating Australia have just suffered in the Ashes series against England.
Everyone involved in the India squad, from coach Bob Houghton downwards, however, knows that some decent performances against three of Asia`s top sides, Australia, South Korea and Bahrain in their Group C matches, could have a big impact on soccer in the sub-continent.
For well-documented historical, cultural, social and organisational reasons going back to the beginning of organised sport in India, soccer has never been the country`s top sport, giving way to hockey and cricket.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter said again this week that India, with a population of over one billion, remains the last great frontier for soccer to conquer.
"If we have to identify new territories where football could be better, defintely it is the sub-continent," he told journalists at the Asian Cup.
"There are 1.2 billion people in India and this is a double market, not only for football but for the economy. India is a real power."
Although there are whispers that FIFA would welcome a World Cup in India some time in the next 20 or 30 years, the far more immediate ambition is to end decades of under-achievement, something that coach Houghton knows won`t happen overnight.
The much-travelled Englishman has been in charge of the side for over four years and has seen some improvement such as winning the Asian Challenge Cup in 2008 which secured India`s place at these finals for the first time since 1984.
He knows some of the reasons for India`s failure to make an impact but remains optimistic things can change for the better.
"Those who aren`t Indian are probably wondering how a country of over a billion people has only got 90 eligible boys playing in its national league every week and that is a question I have been asking for four and a half years and it`s not easy to get it resolved."
"We hope we can do something about it in the near future. We have a new president and he seems quite keen to build some stadia, and change the league, make it more competitive and make sure there are some development programmes."
"I coached Uzbekistan before I came here and watched Uzbekistan play Qatar the other night. Uzbekistan is a small country but there are three huge differences between them and India."
"There is no soccer infrastructure in India, that`s why we spent a lot of the time outside India trying to prepare for this tournament. There are no training grounds, there are no match facilities, there`s some good players, but there is no coaching educational programmes."
"So if you haven`t got the facilities, the devlopment programmes or the coaches then you have a long way to go."
"Overall there is a lot to be done, but we hope that India`s appearance here on the big stage will lift the profile."
He believes that organisational changes in the All India Football Federation could produce dividends.
These include the professionalisation of the national league and the introduction of development programmes, a step confirmed to Reuters by Subrata Dutta, the FA`s senior vice-president.
"Indian football is in a transitional state," he said as the team trained in Doha for the Australia match.
"We have reorganised our finances, and we are set to implement our development programmes we have new plans in place for all aspects of the game. I think we can be a strong footballing nation in Asia."
"Domestic football is much more popular in India than domestic cricket. International cricket is much more popular of course, but very few countries participate in that and so we do well."
"The spirit of nationalism does not get evoked in soccer as it does in cricket, but once we start to do better, I think it will draw attention to the team, we will gain more support, more funding. As we say in India, football is an argument, cricket is a discussion."
One other problem India faces identified by Houghton is that its national league has a large number of overseas players, and not many Indians play abroad.
Sunil Chhetri is one player who does, becoming the first to play in the MLS when he signed for Kansas City Wizards last year.
According to Chhetri, whose hat-trick against Tajikistan in the final of the AFC Challenge Cup secured India`s place in Qatar, things are changing for the better.
"It feels great to be here. For years we only heard about the Asian Cup and I am sure there are a lot of players in the team who did not even follow it."
"Thanks to the coach, we are no longer scared. Before, when we were playing any big team in Asia we had that feeling that it wasn`t going to happen and how were we going to survive."
"We all know what Australia and South Korea can do. Now it is about us, and we are going to play with no pressure and enjoy it."