Members of the Indian football team, led by captain Bhaichung Bhutia, have backed chief coach Bob Houghton, who is facing allegations of racially abusing an Indian referee during an international friendly in Pune last September.
All the 23 national players and support staff, who were in Doha for the Asian Cup, sent a signed letter to AIFF president Praful Patel, saying Houghton did not use racially abusive language against Indian referee Dinesh Nair, and all the allegations against him are false.
"All the allegations of Houghton having used racially abusive language against Nair were false. The players were the nearest people to the coach at the time when the alleged incident happened and we can testify that he had not used any racially abusive language," the letter said, according to a senior player.
"The incident in question happened during the first-half break and we were not happy that only two minutes were added though it should have been at least five minutes as there were a lot of interruptions in the first-half. We were walking out of field not happy with the less time addition but at no time Houghton had used any racially abusive language for the referee," the senior player told PTI.
Apart from the national players, assistant coach Savio Medeira and goalkeeping coach Marcus Pacheco are also among those who signed the letter.
Houghton was accused of using racially abusive language against Nair in the match against Yemen, which was part of the national team's preparations for the Asian Cup, held in Qatar in January.
Nair lodged a written complaint to the AIFF and on the basis of that and also on grounds that Houghton had used "derogatory" remarks against Indian football, the federation had last month decided to seek legal advice if his contract, which runs till 2013, can be terminated without monetary loss to it.
Later, Houghton had issued a statement through his agent Simon Thomson, describing the allegations as "nonsensical".
He had said that he had never used any racially abusive language against Nair and the players and the coaching staff would testify it.
With the players jumping to the side of the coach, it will be interesting to see what the AIFF top brass does to deal with the tricky situation as some of the key officials want to see the back of Houghton.
Meanwhile, despite the uncertainty over his future, Houghton is leaving for Malaysia on Tuesday with the national team, without some senior players, for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers which begins on March 21.
The team is without the likes of Bhutia, Renedy Singh, Deepak Mondal, Mahesh Gawli, Climax Lawrence, N P Pradeep, Abhishek Yadav.
Sunil Chhetri, Gouramangi Singh, Anwar Ali, Subrata Paul and Steven Dias are it the squad though.