Pitted against Asias best, India face daunting task
India, who are playing in the tournament after a gap of 27 years by virtue of winning the AFC Challenge Cup, lost seven out of nine international friendlies in the build-up to the continent`s showpiece event, including a 1-9 and a 0-5 thrashing at the hands of Kuwait and UAE.
The morale of the players took a beating thanks to the spat between coach Bob Houghton and manager Pradip Chowdhury, reportedly over the issue of injury to several players.
Laid low by a calf muscle injury since the middle of September, Bhutia is facing a race against time to be fit for India`s opening match against Australia on January 10.
Among the 16 participating nations, India is the lowest-ranked side at 142nd in FIFA charts, and has no realistic chance of qualifying from a group that comprises Australia, South Korea and Bahrain.
Australia are the highest-ranked side at 26th while South Korea are 40th in FIFA charts. While both the nations qualified for the World Cup, Bahrain missed the bus to South Africa in play-off.
The All India Football Federation has spent nearly Rs 20 crore for the preparation with 30 players being paid salary for a period of eight months from June last year till the end of this month. The players have been together for that period training in Dubai and Portugal.
Houghton and the Indian football establishment have, however, been modest in their ambition looking at the tournament as the beginning of a new era.
"I hope it works as a catalyst for further strides ahead.
But, if we go there and perform poorly then we are back to square one," Houghton, the experienced Englishman who have coached the national sides of China and Uzbekistan, said.
"It`s a great feeling and I hope the exposure by playing against some of the big names in world football would do a lot of good for Indian football. We are hoping that we can rise to the occasion," said Bhutia.
India finished runners-up in the third edition in 1964 when six teams competed in Israel. That phase is still referred to as being the golden era of Indian football.
But football has, since those glory days, gone backwards with acute lack of infrastructure and professionalism as compared to other countries in Asia. It was hardly surprising that India failed to make any impact in the 1984 Asian Cup, their last appearance in the tournament.