Asian Cup, football Asian Cup, Asian Cup football, football
A picture dated November 16, 2010 shows India's football team members singing the national anthem before competing against Japan at the men's football 1/8 final match 44 during the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou. -Photo by AFP

DOHA: It has taken India 27 years to qualify for its third Asian Cup and few are expecting any fireworks from a massive country that has never realised its footballing potential.

India are in Qatar courtesy of winning the eight-nation AFC Challenge Cup as hosts in 2008 -- a tournament of lower-tier Asian teams.

It will be their first outing at the Asian Cup since 1984 where they failed to make any impact, in contrast to their maiden appearance in 1964 when they finished runners-up.

A repeat of that performance is highly unlikely with Bobby Houghton's squad more concerned with preventing any embarrassing scorelines, with the might of Australia, South Korea and Bahrain awaiting them in a tough Group C.

If recent results are any indication, they could be seriously out of their depth having lost 2-0 to Iraq, 9-1 to Kuwait and 5-0 to the UAE in November.

That match againt UAE on November 18 was the last one they have played and they go into the tournament clearly under-prepared.

They have also been hit by controversy with manager Pradeep Chowdhury walking out on the team in December after an apparent spat with Houghton, with players accusing him of deserting them.

English journeyman Houghton, who used to play for Fulham and has previously coached China and Uzbekistan, admitted they face an uphill task.

“I don't know what is realistic. We are 144 in the world and Australia and South Korea have just played the World Cup. That is a very tough group,” he recently told goal.com.

Houghton, who has been in charge of India since 2006, has also been struggling with a spate of injuries to key players, including captain and striker Baichung Bhutia, although he has been named in their squad.

The 63-year-old has been around long enough to know that a thrashing in Qatar will spell the end of the road for him, despite having a contract that runs until 2013.

“You have to be realistic. If India goes out of the Asian Cup with no points there's going to be an enormous outcry to sack the coach. Sometimes decisions are taken out of your hands.”

The 1950s and 60s was India's golden era, with the national team winning the Asian Games gold medals in 1951 and 1962 while becoming the first Asian nation to make it to the Olympics semi-finals at Melbourne in 1956.

But since those glory days, football has gone backwards, with infrastructure for its development poor compared to other countries in the region.

Currently ranked a lowly 144th in the world, recent successes have been limited to the South Asian region with victories in the Nehru Cup in 2007 and 2009 before their AFC Challenge Cup heroics handed them a ticket to Doha.

Asian Football Confederation chief Mohamad bin Hammam recently blasted India's almost stagnant development in the sport, saying it was important that they start showing their potential.

“There is no reason why India should lag behind the rest of Asia,” he said.

“India's involvement with football is certainly deep. The AFC believes we cannot succeed with whatever we do in Asia without India taking on and playing a leading role.”

They begin their campaign against Australia on January 10.

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