Mixed luck for Punjab

Published : Dec 15, 2001 00:00 IST


MEN'S football was perhaps the only event in the National Games which had two venues. The competition started at the Guru Gobind Singh Stadium in Jalandhar and at the end of the league phase, matches in the knock-out phase were shifted to the spick-and-span modern Guru Nanak Dev Stadium in Ludhiana, easily a pride facility of Punjab. Then again, Ludhiana apparently is the nerve-centre for football in the State, if the size of the crowd is anything to go by. Not entirely surprising for a State which has given an array of class players to the country like Jarnail Singh, Inder Singh, Gurdev Singh, Parminder Singh and not to forget the current national coach, Sukhvinder Singh among others. With JCT Mills team and from this year Punjab Police too keeping the State flag flying high in the National Football League, the interest for the sport has never gone down. A sample of it came in the final where Punjab, egged on by the capacity crowd, edged Goa for the gold medal to trigger scenes of overflowing joy in the galleries.

That was a final which will be remembered not for quality play but the ambience. The bright floodlights, the roaring crowd and of course the wintry night sky, lit with the brightness of the full moon. On the turf however the settings were prosaic. There was Punjab, which played robustly, sacrificing nuances for bulldozing techniques while Goa showed the virtues of planned build up in attack only to come a cropper upfront. In fact had it not been for that rare finish by Hardeep Gill, who had more times to curse himself in this competition for his lapses, with a powerful left footed volley that virtually ended the final, the contest could have had a prolonged run. Like the semi-final between Goa and Maharashtra which could be resolved only after the match had gone over two and half hours and into the fourth set of kicks in the 'sudden death' phase after extra-time and tie-breaker had failed to break the stalemate.

One reason for the overall poor standard and disjointed display was that most States in the fray (the eight quarter-finalists of the previous National championship) had not sent their best outfits, the leading clubs refusing to release key players in view of the high stakes National Football League round the corner. The teams to suffer most were Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Bengal. Bengal in fact looked a third or fourth string side with not one known name in the list. Understandably, Punjab was close to its full unit, being the host, while Kerala with the tag of being the latest National champion had a desire to reinforce its supremacy all again, only things did not roll out the way planned. Tamil Nadu and Services were almost the same squad that had participated in the Mumbai National.

It is in this context that the AIFF President, Mr. Priyaranjan Dasmunshi had suggested the need from the next Games to have football competition restricted to either Under-21 or Under-23 players as in the Olympics. Not only would it avoid a clash between clubs and State Associations on release of players but the competition itself could form a good forum for fresh talent to gain spotlight and attention. May be, when a team enters the knock-out phase it could be given the option to induct one or two established over-aged players so as to ensure that the competition does not become one entirely of novices.

As it happened then, Bengal crashed out at the league phase with its coach Jahar Das fuming that there were efforts to throw his team out through unfair means. He was alluding to the alleged 'fixed' match between Karnataka and Services where the latter won with the tailor-made margin required to keep Bengal out. That would have worked only if Bengal had the wherewithal to beat group topper Maharashtra which it did not. Das' argument would have had substance had Bengal won. In the event, with Karnataka's meek surrender, Services was able to make it to semi-final as the second team behind Maharashtra.

The other group too was not short of surprises. Kerala's downfall was least expected. Granted the side's key player Asif Saheer could not take the field after the wound in his thigh region he had sustained in Mumbai failed to heal fully. But could that single player's absence rock the team so badly, was the question as it gained just one win, ironically against Punjab, the eventual winner. Punjab and Goa had an interesting tussle. It was a case where Punjab needed a win to qualify while Goa had assured itself of a berth. For 82 minutes Goa remained stubborn, Punjab making every effort to get that elusive goal. Then two goals came in a flash, Punjab not only won but on better goal difference pushed Goa to number two spot. The other team was Tamil Nadu, desperately low in resolve but nonetheless displaying late show of pluck as if to remind all around that the team had in it to upset the best, finishing a disappointing last.

The semifinals proved a saga of struggle. Perhaps the new ambience of Ludhiana made it difficult for the teams to settle down straightaway but if Goa and Maharashtra went on and on in what was a battle of nerves that Goa finally won 7-6, then Punjab needed a golden goal (Hardeep Saini) to settle matters with Services 2-1. Services protested that goal, claiming that Saini was off side and even created unpleasant scenes on the turf but the damage had been done.

Considering Maharashtra's all-win record in the league and a truly inspiring player like Tomba in its ranks, the holder was tipped the favourite but Goa coach Norbert Gonsalves' claim that "we play well against tough sides" came true. It is a different matter that Sukhdev Arwade, Sebastion, Lazarus Fernandes and Menino Fernandes, the key players could not design a win in regulation or extra time. But the players held their nerves in the shoot-out. None displayed the shakiness of Maharashtra better than the man every opposition had feared, Narendra Meetei, who shot out in the sudden death to end his team's quest for gold.

"A revenge match", thought Goa of the final. For Punjab having pipped it in the league, Goa thought it had the strength to tame the lion in its own den. But once the whistle blew for kick off, it was soon apparent the hunter became the hunted. The Goan players looked numbed, even stuttered in the face of Punjab's stormy attacks, before recovering partially. By then Hardeep Gill's dazzling left footer had felled goalkeeper Felix D'Souza. Goa did not rise from there. For the huge gathering it was sufficient reason for a 'bhangra' in the galleries.

Holder Manipur underscored its supremacy in women's football by capturing the gold medal beating a fighting host Punjab 3-2. N. Lokeswari, S. Manitombi and N. Geeta Rani were the scorers for Manipur while Balwinder Kaur and Rajwant Kaur reduced the margin.

Bengal, silver medallist at Imphal last time, had to be content with a bronze this time, beating Bihar 3-1 in the match for third place.

The results:

Men's final: Punjab 1 (Hardeep Gill 31') beat Goa 0.

For third place: Maharashtra 1 (Samson Singh 4') beat Services 0.

Semifinals: Punjab 2 (Gurjeet Singh 16', Hardeep Saini 102' golden goal) beat Services 1 (Amar Bahadur Thapa 57'); Goa 7 (Savio Pereira, Menino Fernandes, Seby Mendes, Vico D'Souza, Mario Pereira, Sukhdev Arwade, Domnic Noronha) beat Maharashtra 6 (Naushad Moosa, Adil Ansari, Nasir Jamal, Samson, Sushil Karthak, Kamal Thapa) via tie-breaker and sudden death (0-0 at regulation time).

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