SAG: India seeks men’s football gold after 21 years

The last time India produced the gilt-edged performance was at home in 1995 when Chennai hosted the Games and the team — having a clutch of outstanding internationals like I.M. Vijayan, Baichung Bhutia, Jo Paul Ancheri and Carlton Chapman — beat Bangladesh in the final.

India packed off holder and two-time champion Bangladesh with an authoritative show in the semi-final on Saturday.   -  Ritu Raj Konwar

Many of the players in this team were not even born when the country last won the football gold in the South Asian Games. This factor is likely to firm up the resolve when the Indian youth team takes on Nepal in the final on Monday looking to regain the title after a break of 21 years.

The last time India produced the gilt-edged performance was at home in 1995 when Chennai hosted the Games and the team — having a clutch of outstanding internationals like I.M. Vijayan, Baichung Bhutia, Jo Paul Ancheri and Carlton Chapman — beat Bangladesh (1-0) in the final. The onus now falls on a group of youngsters around 19 years of age to help India win its fourth SAG gold.

India packed off holder and two-time champion Bangladesh (3-0) with an authoritative show in the semi-final on Saturday and renewed the hopes of a triumphant end. India’s under-19 team coach Jee Johnson, who is currently in charge of the present youth team, felt his boys have the ability to carry on the good work.

“The team that was formed only three days before the tournament has blended well and is showing good organisation in both defence and midfield,” said the Englishman, who now has the challenge of matching what India had done in 1995 under the coaching of Uzbek Rustam Akhramov.

“Expectations will be high as we will be going for the tile after many years. I hope the team remains focussed and can maintain the form that they had in the semi-final,” said Johnson.

The Indians preferred to have a fun session with light practice on the eve of the final and the English coach said the only concern he has is the injury to striker Halicharan Narzary, who appeared to be struggling against Bangladesh.

Johnson will have the option of picking striker Sumeet Passi, who is available for selection after being suspended for the semi-final. The good form of the players like Kuman Udanta Singh, who has scored three goals so far, Jerry Mawihmingthanga, Jayesh Rane, Sandesh Jinghan and Lallinzuala Chhangte in midfield and defence will be keeping the host buoyed ahead of the title clash.

Two-time champion Nepal, which defeated Maldives 4-3 in the extra-time in the other semi-final, also has strong credentials. It has retained the side that won the Bangabandhu Cup in Bangladesh defeating the Bahrain under-23 side 3-0 in the final barely a couple of weeks before coming here.

Nepal team coach Raju Kaji Shakya said his boys have the “Gorkha” spirit and would give their best against any opponent.

“We have performed quite well in Bangladesh and we have retained most of the boys for this tournament. There are no injury worries in the side and we hope to give a good challenge to the host in the final,” Shakya said.

Nepal will only be missing its defender Kamal Shrestha, who received a red card in the semi-final.

Nepal had last won the gold defeating India in 1993 in Dhaka and reached the final last in 1999 at home in Kathmandu, where it lost to Bangladesh. Seeking its third gold, the visitor will be looking at the good form of striker Nawayug Shrestha, who scored a fine hat-trick in the semi-final against Maldives, and will remain a big worry for the host’s defence.