A spectacular turnaround in Indian football

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

YEARS of under-achievement have limited success to such an extent that even modest achievements in football evoke loud celebrations in India. Indian football hit one of the rare crests in a long saga of fluctuating fortunes as its youth team qualified for the final phase of the Asian Football Confederation Under-20 championship. The celebration in the wake of the triumph at the first stage appeared slightly premature and out of place considering the national team's pitiable record of finishing at the bottom after seeing itself through to the title round on a few occasions in this biennial event.

Though the country lifted the title jointly with host Iran in 1974, the success chart has hit rock-bottom in recent past. The last decade saw India qualify for the finals - availing the best of hosting the qualifiers - on three occasions but the best it could manage in the decisive stage was a draw each time to finish in the residuary.

The Indian youth team which topped group IV and qualified for the final phase of the Asian Football Confederation Under-20 championship.-S. PATRONOBISH

Repeating its earlier feats, India, hosting the group IV qualifiers at Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium, outclassed a couple of former Soviet outfits in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and neighbouring Bhutan to top the group and book a berth in the finals to be held in Qatar in October. In doing so the national youth team can be proud of taking a step better than the seniors - qualify to the final stage of any continental contest. The last time India reached the finals was in 1998 when it topped a five-team affair hosting the meet at Bangalore. The country's poor form on foreign soil was evident in the 2000 qualifiers which saw Pakistan pip India in the meet held at Colombo. With the qualifiers coming back to India this year, the host once again excelled on home turf. While establishing its strength on home soil the qualification has opened up the debate whether India will be continuing with its dismal show in the final stages or will it be able to reproduce the triumph it accomplished at Teheran 28 years ago.

The field in the final stage appears to be daunting with the likes of Japan - the runner-up last year - former champion Korea, China, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Bangladesh qualifying among the 12 nations - including the host Qatar - playing for the title in October. The qualifiers having the Middle-East nations, including defending champion Iraq, remained to be completed after India became the ninth nation to ensure its qualification.

Thanks to a major contribution from the Tata Football Academy - which has been the fountainhead of the top soccer talents in the country consistently rolling out quality players in a manner befitting its giant status as an automobile major - and the recent efforts of the All India Football Federation to initiate a regularised youth development programme, the Indian team presented a refreshing look with enough skill and talent on display. Lending more to the success was the fact that the greater number of boys in the present squad formed a part of the under-16 team that played and crashed out losing the last match against Bangladesh in the qualifiers held at Jamshedpur a couple of years ago. With most of these boys graduating to the youth stage, the urge to erase the earlier disappointment appeared in them as they showed greater purpose and tact in their second international assignment.

Uzbekistan coach Islam Akhmedov, who was a part of the team in the under-16 meet in 2000, appeared to have used the failure as a cause for turning a group of "talented but temperamentally feeble boys" into a winning outfit. The sport's administrators also have their credits due for putting faith in Akhmedov and allowing him enough time to work with the boys. In doing so the AIFF made a welcome departure from the old theory of hiring a coach just ahead of a tournament and firing him after the championship, in which the team invariably failed.

India went into the qualifiers as the favourite. Having a fair measure of the opponents like Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan - both of whom India had drubbed 7-1 and 3-0 respectively in the 1998 qualifiers the host justifiably showed enough confidence. Tajikistan remained the only unknown opponent putting some worries in the Indian camp. Coming right after the FIFA World Cup, Akhmedov cited creative football espoused by Turkey as the inspiration ahead of India's opening match against Bhutan. Adopting a robust midfield having five men - and a lone striker, the host appeared to muddle up the whole approach of creative football. India opened the scoring in the 12th minute but conceded the equaliser soon enough to have the first session 1-1 against the visitor. Bhutan, coached by Dutch Arie Schans, impressed with its quickness and sound tackling. The rest and some tough words from Akhmedov in the interval seemed to work on the Indians who were a transformed lot after the break. The host regained the lead right after the kick-off in the second session getting its explosive winger S. Malswam Tulunga to score. With the striker Rahim Nabi fumbling at the goal mouth, Ashim Biswas moved up from his withdrawn slot to increase the lead in the 50th minute before Malswam Tulunga made it 4-1.

India's uneasiness against Tajikistan, which had beaten neighbour Kyrgyzstan 2-0 in the other match on the opening day, seemed to dominate the action in the second match. Both the teams appeared tense and cramped as the match ended goalless with neither of the sides willing to take chances. The two teams - nourishing hopes of qualifying for the finals apparently reserved their best for the concluding round as Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan were almost written off after producing another barren encounter on the same day.

India's best came on the final day. With the Tajiks, guided by a fine hat-trick from their substitute striker Faridun Abdulloev, beating Bhutan 3-0, the host was set with the tough task of winning at least by two goals without conceding any against Kyrgyzstan in the last match. The pressure seemed to be working adversely on the Indians who repeated abortive attempts against Kyrgyzstan, which had packed its defence in an effort to force a draw and support the cause of its neighbour. All the hopes seemed to disappear fast as a flat-footed attack-line failed to break the deadlock till the 74th minute. In what could be termed as one of the most spectacular turnarounds India produced four goals in the last 16 minutes to erase its history of failures. The skills of Malswam Tulunga proved crucial yet again as the right-winger stole in the heavily guarded Kyrgyz box and opened the sluice-gates scoring the opener in the 74th minute. Malswam Tulunga was in the provider's role three minutes later essaying a centre which Ashim Biswas nodded home. The Nagaland midfielder was finally stopped but unlawfully inside the box to have Bungo Singh availing the resultant penalty for a 3-0 lead. Striker Rahim Nabi, found the mark scoring the fourth goal with only two minutes remaining. India thus emerged triumphant producing a far better goal difference than the Tajiks.

It now remains to be seen how AIFF shapes up for a much greater challenge in the finals. If one does not wish to see the team finishing last in the finals yet again, a lot remains to be done in the short time ahead of the meet in Qatar. The project director of the age-group events, Ranjit Gupta stresses on adding a few fresh faces to plug the deficits that were evident in the qualifiers. Gupta, apparently unhappy with Akhmedov's methods, spoke the old lines about suggesting the AIFF of having a new person for the job. It is uncertain how AIFF will react to all this.

Group IV results:

India bt Bhutan 4-1, drew Tajikistan 0-0, bt Kyrgyzstan 4-0; Tajikistan bt Kyrgyzstan 2-0, bt Bhutan 3-0; Kyrgyzstan drew Bhutan 0-0.