New Delhi: Set to return to elite company after 26 years, India will embark on its preparations for the 2011 Asian Cup with a two-month training tour of Portugal from on Thursday and seven international friendlies lined up before the prestigious tournament in Qatar next January.
National coach Bob Houghton and 28 players will leave for Portugal from here in the wee hours on Thursday for a two-month tour which will kickstart India`s preparations for Asian Cup next January, for which the country qualified after 1984.
Defender Gouramangi Singh will join his team-mates in a few days as he is yet to reach the country from Australia after failing to get a contract with the A-League side Melbourne Heart FC.
Striker Sunil Chhetri, who is also among the 30 players selected for the preparations, is not expected to be in Portugal as he has joined Major League Soccer side Kansas City Wizards in March.
"Sunil will join the team later, may be in November," Houghton told a press conference on the eve of team departure here on Wednesday.
"For one month from July 1-31, the team will be based at Vierra, a small town some 200 kms from Lisbon on the road to Porto. It is a peaceful place with good football facilities. A Portuguese league third division side is based there.
"In the first month we are not playing any friendly matches. The objective was to bring all the players to same level of fitness. The players had come after playing in different clubs, some with injuries and later recovered, so they need to come to the same level of fitness before playing ant competitive games," the 62-year-old coach elaborated.
The whole of August, the team will train at facilities of Portuguese Premier League side Sporting Clube in Lisbon and play 10 friendlies against second division sides.
"The players will train at the Sporting Clube academy for the month of August. The academy is famous for producing two World Footballers of the Year in Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo. We will play 10 friendlies there," the experienced British coach said.
From Lisbon, the players will directly go to Bangkok to play an international friendly against Thailand on September 4. They will return here on September 5 or 6 to host the Thai side for another international friendly at Ambedkar Stadium on September 8.
The national team will be based here in September and play four more international friendlies at Ambedkar Stadium against national teams to be decided soon. The AIFF is negotiating with countries like Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, DPR Korea and China.
On October 8 and 12, which are FIFA match days, India will play two more international friendlies at venues to be decided later. The team will then leave for a two week camp in a Gulf country before returning here for an international friendly at Ambedkar Stadium in the middle of November.
From November 20, the team will have a final training camp at a Gulf country, either in UAE or Qatar, to end just before the Asian Cup in Doha.
India had been drawn in a tough group in the Asian Cup along with continental powerhouses Australia and South Korea besides Bahrain but Houghton said he expects a new-look Socceroo team in the tournament.
"Australians in the ongoing World Cup is an ageing team. I expect many of them retiring before Asian Cup. The coach will also retire, so we can expect a new-look team. That would be better for us," said the experienced coach who had been at helm of affairs for national sides of China and Uzbekistan.
"Regarding South Korea, only a couple of players from their World Cup squad may not be in Asian Cup. Their coach may also be there. When I was coach of China in 1998-2000 I was against the South Korean coach for three matches. So we know what to expect from the South Koreans," he said.
Houghton also drew an ambitious plan for India`s World Cup qualification for which he said the nurturing of an Under-19 side which will be fielded as AIFF XI in the next I-League was important.
"The AIFF does not want to run a team. But it was needed because of the circumstances. If we want to qualify the World Cup in near future we have to have development teams and that is what we are doing.
"These Under-19 boys they don`t get to play in the first team in the I-League. Gouramangi Singh was the best example.
He was the Indian Under-17 captain. He went into oblivion before he was brought into the national team in 2007 Nehru Cup and he became the best defender in the country. We want the Under-19 boys to play in the I-League regularly," the coach explained.
He also said that current Philippines national team coach Desmond Bulpin will take over as the coach of the Under-19 side to be fielded in the I-League as AIFF XI.
Houghton said the Under-19 boys will be kept for five years with the AIFF giving them contracts so that they form the crux of the team that will play the 2018 World Cup qualifiers which will begin in 2015.
"The younger players of the current national team like Gouramangi and Sunil Chhetri will also be there in 2015," he said.
Houghton also said that top national players like captain Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri will not be fielded in the Asian Games in November in China.
"Asian Cup is much more important than Asian Games. So top players like Bhaichung and Chhetri will be in the camp for Asian Cup and not play in Asian Games. Other countries like Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia send development sides in Asian Games," her reasoned.
"Out of the 30 players to go to Portugal on Thursday, the squad will be pruned to 25 in November. The three over-aged (over 23 years of age) players who can be fielded in the Asian Games will be chosen from among these five left out," Houghton said.