SAFF CUP: A giant step for the young Indian team

Not many gave India even a slight chance of reaching the final let alone winning the title. But the young side showed great character to script a comeback win against higher-ranked Afghanistan.

Players of the Indian team celebrate after winning the SAFF Cup, beating Afghanistan 3-1 in the final in Thiruvananthapuram.   -  PTI

Shortly after captaining India to victory in the final of the SAFF Suzuki Cup at the Greenfield Stadium, Sunil Chhetri spoke of the importance of winning trophies. He has been part of the teams that had won the SAFF Cup, Nehru Cup and the AFC Challenge Cup earlier, and has also led the country in a few of those triumphs.

As the most successful Indian captain, Chhetri is a veteran in this young Indian team and he knows the significance of winning titles.

“This win, which came against many odds, is the most important of my career. It is important to win tournaments in your career. There are many great players who have never won tournaments in their careers. This is a great moment for some of the youngsters in the team. Had we not won this, Afghanistan would have been the SAFF champions for their entire lives. No matter what we do after this championship, it will not be significant as it was the last time that they (Afghanistan) were playing in the SAFF Cup,” he said. (Afghanistan will henceforth compete in the newly created Central Asian Federation.)

Red-letter day

December 3, 2016 will forever be etched in the minds of the young members of the Indian team. Not many gave them even a slight chance of reaching the final let alone winning the title. But the young side showed great character to script a comeback win against the higher-ranked Afghanistan.

Though the SAFF Cup is not a tough tournament, the victory is significant considering that the chief coach, Stephen Constantine, was using this as an opportunity to build the foundation for the future Indian team. The Englishman rated the win as an important one in his coaching career.

Things certainly did not pan out the way Constantine wanted when he had assembled his cast in Kochi. A few of the stalwarts — Sandesh Jhingan, Cavin Lobo and Seityasen Singh — were found to be carrying injuries and were released on the first day of the camp. Two days after the team had assembled in Kochi, Constantine announced during an interaction with the media that his team was not the favourite to win the title. Even when the team had landed in Thiruvananthapuram two days before the start of the tournament, the coach lamented that he had not got the chance to play an 11-a-side practice match between team members for lack of time.

However, he put a template in place for the future. Constantine picked a young team for the tournament. If one were to leave out Jeje Lalpekhula (32 caps), the number of caps earned by the rest of the Indian team would not even add up to that of Sunil Chhetri’s (88 caps).

Players for the future

Credit should go to Constantine for showing the courage to field a young team, especially in a tournament that India was hosting. Normally, the temptation would have been to play it safe by including a few seniors, but Constantine was keen on finding players for the future.

The coach wanted the team to play around the experienced Chhetri and the in-form Robin Singh. During the course of the tournament, he sprang a few surprises, like giving the 18-year-old striker, Lallianzula Chhangte, his first India cap and fielding the previously untested Rowlin Borges as central defender. Constantine gave his players the freedom to evolve and express themselves.

Chhangte of Mizoram became the youngest player to score an international goal for the Indian senior side. “Honestly, I would not have given Lallianzula a try if we were playing against Iran. This is a tournament where we are playing against our equals and it is an ideal tournament to experiment,” Constantine said of choice of players.

Another youngster Holicharan Nazary impressed with his tireless work ethic and was penetrative from the left flank. Bikash Jairu perhaps played the best match of his career in the final. Constantine persisted with him despite the player looking lost at the start of the tournament.

Defence, weak link

If at all India had a weakness, it was in defence where Pritam Kotal and Arnab Mondal at times were sloppy and allowed easy chances to opponents. Constantine wasn’t worried though. “Let us not be too harsh on our defence. The four are playing together for the first time and I believe they have done a fair job. Normally in clubs, players will take at least a year to settle down and here we are expecting them to do it in a day,” he said.

However, the Indian defence had their best moments in the final against Afghanistan. Against quality strikers, they stood out admirably by minimising their mistakes. After a horrendous start to his coaching stint — when he lost his first five matches in charge — Constantine has now won five consecutive matches and a tournament. However, the road ahead is full of challenges.

A vocal critic of the Indian Super League, which he says is hurting the Indian team, Constantine has to assemble a strong side to play against Iran in an away tie in the World Cup qualifiers in March. While most of his first choice players will be jaded, having played in the I-League, how the coach motivates his young bridge against a world-class side will be interesting to watch. The gains made from the SAFF Cup will also be under scrutiny.

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