Hard-fought win

The pre-event hype was understandable. “Never had the team taken such professional measures to prepare for a tournament,” remarked Bhaichung Bhutia (Jersey No. 15).-PTI The pre-event hype was understandable. “Never had the team taken such professional measures to prepare for a tournament,” remarked Bhaichung Bhutia (Jersey No. 15).

Matching steps against a higher ranked Syria, India did well to retain the Nehru Cup at a fortress called the Ambedkar Stadium. Over to Vijay Lokapally.

The Ambedkar Stadium was seized by loyal fans of Indian football on one of the finest nights that Bhaichung Bhutia’s team could have aspired for. The fans came in thousands, many with the tri-colour painted on their cheeks; girls, outnumbering boys, were among those who occupied the seats early.

Football was a rage that day in Delhi. The venue had seen such crowd way back in the 70s and 80s, but the audience then was predominantly from the old city. The character of the football audience has undergone a change. So has the image of Indian football, thanks to the victory at the 14th Nehru Cup.

The Nehru Cup was launched in 1982 and some of the stars who graced the Indian soil were Venancio Ramos (Uruguay World Cupper in 1986), Enzo Francescoli (Uruguay World Cupper in 1986 and 1990), Rinat Dasayev (erstwhile Soviet Union star and world No. 1 goalkeeper at one time), Wlodzimierz Smolarek (Polish great), Vasily Rats (Soviet Union World Cupper in 1986 and 1990), Jorge Burruchaga (Argentina, World Cupper in 1986 and 1990), Sergio Batista (Argentina, World Cupper in 1986 and 1990) and Igor Belanov (Soviet Union, 1986 European Footballer of the Year). It was an exalted event in Indian football calendar until 1997 when it was abruptly stopped.

The tournament was revived 10 years later to boost Indian football and chief coach Bob Houghton was its architect. He assumed responsibility for drawing up a plan that ensured India would not take on teams that are placed too high in the FIFA rankings. The 2007 edition saw India win in style against a tough Syria. The result was repeated this time when Syria looked the better team but India emerged the champion.

The scenes at the Ambedkar Stadium captured the mood of the fans. They had come to back Indian football and the stunning victory, thanks to an inspired Subrata Paul under the bar, was a tribute to the faith that the supporters had reposed on their heroes.

The overflowing Stadium, with a capacity of 17,000, was a wonderful sight. A riot of colours formed the background even as desperate fans, unable to gain entry to the venue, rushed to the adjacent Ferozeshah Kotla to grab every possible space. Credit to the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA) authorities for allowing football fans the access to one of the stands that gave them a clear view of the football pitch.

Houghton was the driving force that propelled the players to the top. All he wanted from them was to give “100 per cent” and the Englishman was not disappointed. The team played within its limitations but some of the “boys” performed beyond themselves to carve a victory against heavy odds. Syria was the favourite even as Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka and Lebanon offered challenges at various stages.

That it was an all-Asian tournament hardly mattered to the fans. The younger generation has grown up watching some fascinating stuff at the world stage on television but are prepared to give Indian football too a place in their heart. Only, it needs to be consistent. Football, once a game of the masses, had faded in terms of support but the Nehru Cup win should go a long way in restoring its popularity.

Not many gave India a chance after it lost the opening match to Lebanon. The build-up for the tournament had been exemplary, thanks to Houghton, who took the team to Dubai and Barcelona. The pre-event hype was thus understandable. “Never had the team taken such professional measures to prepare for a tournament,” remarked Bhaichung Bhutia. His remarkable partnership with Houghton and the healthy understanding between the coach and his players meant there was reason to expect a resurgence of Indian football. It was triggered by Bhutia, who was to be adjudged the Man of the Tournament.

India played like a cohesive unit after the shocker against Lebanon. The home team was done a huge favour by Sri Lanka, which tamed Lebanon 4-3. In a memorable performance, Sri Lanka sank three goals in the span of 10 minutes to destroy Lebanon, which had come with high hopes. Mohammed Issadeen was the star of Sri Lanka’s victory with three spectacular goals.

But Sri Lanka flattered to deceive. It suffered losses against Syria (0-4), India (1-3) and Kyrgyzstan (1-4) and finished last in the standings. Lebanon ended up a rung higher while Kyrgyzstan took the third spot.

Team India managed the unthinkable against all odds.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The clash for the title did not quite meet the technical excellence expected from the teams but it did satiate the desires of Indian supporters.

“India was lucky to win the final,” lamented the Syria coach Faser Ebrahim. He had issues with the officiating too. But then India won fair and square in a contest that went the distance. It was 0-0 at full time; 1-1 after extra time and finally 6-5 via the sudden-death and India’s hero was Paul, whose towering presence under the bar was so crucial.

India would have had a hero in Renedy Singh, who buried Syria with a goal in the 114th minute. Fate, however, played a hand. Syria snatched the equaliser with barely 20 seconds from the final whistle. It was a terrible tactical mistake by India, which lost possession near the Syrian goal and a stunning counter-attack saw Ali Dyan score with a header. Thereafter it was Paul all the way as he pulled off three penalty saves.

Thanks to the win, India moved up seven places in the FIFA rankings, from 156 to 149. Syria maintained its position at 95 but Lebanon slipped from 148 to 150. The surprise came from Kyrgyzstan. It lost two matches and yet ended up at 143, which was 17 places above its pre-tournament ranking. Sri Lanka too dropped three places to 159.

As the crowd melted, Houghton commented at the post-match Press conference. “We can match any Asian team at this venue.” He was lavish in his praise of the magnificent audience. About time the local football authorities gave a serious thought to having a stadium of their own. It can be a fitting reward for Houghton’s good work with the team.