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Asia

India's soccer team is big unknown in Qatar

The Indians qualified for the continental championship after 27 years and are making only their third overall appearance. In their inaugural Asian Cup participation in 1964, they finished runners-up behind Israel.

The Bhangra Boys warm up for their first match in Qatar

The Bhangra Boys warm up for their first match in Qatar

The "Bhangra Boys," as India are known by their fans, qualified for Qatar by winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, the second tier of national team competition in Asia, which gives developing football nations the chance to compete with the best from the continent.

The team is currently 144th in the FIFA World Rankings – the lowest-ranked in this edition of the Asian Cup. Some observers have wondered aloud whether they should be here at all, but captain Bhaichung Bhutia doesn't think this is justified.

India's Gouramangi Singh and Australia's Harry Kewell struggle to get possession of the ball

India's Gouramangi Singh and Australia's Harry Kewell struggle to get possession of the ball

"There will always be this kind of comments. We should not be bothered as players. The Asia Cup is for all the countries in Asia. They have qualifiers and we've come through. We've not come through any shortcut or thanks to a wild card. We want to do well, and hopefully we can get some good results."

The 34-year-old, who is India's star player, is thrilled to be in Qatar, saying it is the "biggest tournament" he's ever played.

From successes to injuries

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has kept the national team's squad of 30 potential players together since June 2010. The players were paid by the federation, while the team went on a two-month exposure tour of Portugal. They returned to India for a series of friendlies, then trained for the last couple of months in Dubai and finally reached Doha.

Advertisements for the Asian Cup at the entrance of the Villagio Shopping Mall, the largest in Qatar

Advertisements for the Asian Cup at the entrance of the Villagio Shopping Mall, the largest in Qatar

They have a high-profile, experienced coach in Englishman Bob Houghton, who has been with them since June 2006. He has already had some success by winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup and the 2007 and 2009 Nehru Cup, a five-nation tournament hosted by India.

However, several injuries and then heavy defeats in the recent friendlies have dampened the mood. India first got hammered 9-1 by Kuwait, and this was followed by a 5-0 defeat against the United Arab Emirates.

A learning process for the Bhangra Boys

Whereas Baichung Bhutia is still Indian football’s poster boy, his strike partner Sunil Chhetri is also doing extremely well. In March 2010, he signed a contract with North American MLS side Kansas City Wizards (now called Sporting Kansas City), while other players went abroad for trials last summer to Canada and Australia.

Indian striker Sunil Chhetri

Indian striker Sunil Chhetri

This shows that Indian football is making some progress but Sunil Chhetri emphasizes that all the stakeholders in Indian football have to work together to develop the game.

"I just think that all the departments in our country responsible for football to grow, like the coaches, the media, the AIFF, the players can work together," he says. "We can stop the blame game and just start doing our job in the field. We all have one thing in common – we want football to grow in India."

The Indian national team still has a long way to go before becoming a big name in Asian football.

In Qatar, they face Asian heavyweights Australia, South Korea and Bahrain and already lost 4-0 to Australia in their first match. But even getting a point from this group would be huge success as this tournament is basically a learning process for the Bhangra Boys.

Author: Arunava Chaudhuri
Editor: Anne Thomas

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