New Delhi:India football coach Bob Houghton feels the national team has taken long strides forward in the last two-and-a-half years and has been successful in sneaking into the elite group of Asian countries.
Houghton's first big assignment after taking over as India coach in June 2006 was the Asian Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia and his side lost the home and away matches heavily, but the Cape Town-based Englishman says from there to the AFC Challenge Cup triumph, the national team has improved a lot.
"We lost four Asian Cup qualifier matches including that 1-7 loss to Saudi Arabia (in Jeddah in September 2006). Since then we got better, much better. In August this year we qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup (by winning the AFC Challenge Cup)," he told a TV channel.
The Englishman said after the 1-7 thrashing by Saudi Arabia his main concern was to keep the morale of his boys high.
"That loss was a strange game, we played very well for 40 minutes. At the end of the game my concern was that the players did not feel low. When you lose 1-7 it's horrendous feeling in professional football. I tried to put it in perspective," he said in.
Houghton said the Nehru Cup win in August 2007 was an important moment for Indian football and thanked the All India Football Federation for it.
"It (Nehru Cup win) was an important win. That changed a lot of the perspective among the players. AIFF has been behind the good preparation in the run-up to the Nehru Cup and the AFC Challenge Cup also," said the widely travelled-coach.
Charting out his vision for Indian football's development, Houghton said the country has to do away with the amateur tradition and embarrass the professional approach by overhauling the domestic structure.
"India has a long tradition in football, the second oldest tournament in the world is here. But now we have to choose out of the two ways: whether we want to continue these tradition or do we want to move on to become an Asian Power.
"If we want the latter then we have to do away with the amateur tradition that has been around for a long while.
"We have moved in the right direction by starting the I-League which should be the dominant domestic fixture in the country with state leagues playing a secondary role. If the I-League players do not play in the state leagues, which I think will be a feature from next year, then we will have a wide base of Indian boys playing regularly," he said.
The coach said the I-League should have 16 teams competing as soon as possible to have a wide base of players playing in the top level which in turn would provide a platform for national team selection.
"At the moment the I-League is too small, we have to move to a 16-team league quickly. It is no secret that I would have wanted the two relegated teams -- Viva Kerala and Salgaocar --to stay in the I-League. Because we are in the initial stages I don't think that is going to set a dangerous precedent."
He asked the club coaches to be considerate on the country's promising young players by giving them chance to play and felt one way of doing this is to hold I-League and state leagues simultaneously and the national league players not playing in the local leagues.
"Very promising young players do not play at all. Coaches have to ensure that young Indian players, not in the first team, are not cast aside. Otherwise you have promising U-17, U-19 boys going to a club and do not get the chance to play. If coaches do not take interest in them, the boys lose hope and they are lost. There is a whole history of this happening.
"The perfect example is Gouramangi Singh. He was India U-17 captain but before he was picked for the Olympic (qualifier) squad two years ago, he was not playing in the national league though he was in one club or the other. Now he is one of the best defenders in the country.
"So my message to the club coaches is: obviously they would want to fill their first eleven but they should also be considerate to promising young Indian players," Houghton said.