I recall many conversations with European friends who would often remark that once America (with its 300 million people) went crazy for soccer, we could become a dominant force. I usually reminded them that if it were purely a matter of population size, India and China would be wiping the floor with all of us. As rising soccer nations such the United States, Canada, and Australia have learned, it takes a good development system, good coaching at all levels, a professional league, many years, and lots of luck to arrive on the world stage.
While the Chinese men's team has seen steady improvement over the years and their women continue to fill the trophy case, what about India? While India has produced some world class cricket players, mountaineers, and golfers, it is now coming out of a long dry spell in producing quality soccer players. Not since the golden era of 1950s and 1960s has India been a power in Asian soccer. During that time, they won the Asian championships in 1951 and finished fourth at the 1956 Olympics. They later won the 1962 Asian Games Gold medal, and reached the semi-finals in the next two Asian Games tournaments before their star started to fade.
But things are starting to turn around for Indian soccer, starting with the signing of Bhaichung Bhutia at English side Bury in 1999; the first Indian soccer player to sign for a European side. He played in 37 matches, scoring three goals before returning to India to play for Mohun Bagan. Most recently, a positive step has been the launch of the 12 team I-League in 2007, which replaced the fading National Football League. Some major changes are the inclusion of four foreigners per team plus a national television contract and league sponsor.
Another big step was in 2006 when the All-Indian Football Federation (AIFF) hired English coach Bob Houghton to guide the national team, also known as the Bhangra Boys. Speaking on the development of the I-League, Houghton told the Indian media; "That's why it is very important to have I-League in place. We have to make sure that more Indian boys play at the top professional level week in and out. We have some boys in the national team who have hardly played any matches for their clubs."
And India is also building a youth program with an eye on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Houghton added that "The qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup will start from 2015 and that is seven years from now. The under-19 team will be 26, under-16 will be 23 and under-14 will be 21. So these three teams will be absolutely central in qualification for the 2018 World Cup. So there is a possibility because the good thing about it is that we have got the start and we have to carry on with it."
Currently, India is looking strong in the AFC Challenge Cup which they are favored to win. Led by Bhutia, who has 40 goals in 57 appearances for India, the Bhangra Boys just beat Turkmenestan 2-1 (both goals by Bhutia) to win group A and book themselves a place in the semifinals. Bhutia is supported up front by up-and-coming striker Sunil Chetri and served by a solid midfield. Now, they are set to face Myanmar for a place in the final in Hyderabad to play either North Korea or Tajikistan. If they manage to win it all, they'll earn direct qualification to play in the Asian Cup 2011 finals - a great opportunity for this sleeping giant which may be starting to awaken.
All I can say is Jai India!