Over the moon after beating Cameroon

The victorious Indian team.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

It was a new Indian team with new tactics. Ball control, possession play, short passes and aggressive defending were the highlights as it won the Nehru Cup for the third time in a row. Vijay Lokapally analyses.

Wim Koevermans, Sunil Chetri and Syed Rahim Nabi were the key figures in India’s successful campaign in the Nehru Cup. The team did not beat a ‘mighty’ Cameroon for the title. Cameroon was a team assembled in a mere two weeks and did not include a single established international player in its ranks. It was nevertheless a notable show by India since the team comprised new faces in the absence of stalwarts like Bhaichung Bhutia, Mahesh Gawli, Samir Naik, Climax Lawrence and Stevan Dias.

It was a new team with new tactics. Ball control, possession play, short passes and aggressive defending were the highlights of coach Koevermans’ style. The team responded splendidly and won the Nehru Cup for the third time in a row (2007, 2009 and 2012).

Where does Indian football go from here? The expectations are many, but the realities are best known to the coach. “We can only improve from here. Prior to the kick-off of the Nehru Cup, I told you that we will be going into the tournament to win it. I meant it and we did it. The boys are much better than what they think they are. If they were not good, they wouldn’t have been able to carry out the instructions throughout the final. Our big aim is to qualify for the Asian Cup and play as many international friendlies on FIFA dates — against good quality sides,” Koevermans told Sportstar.

On his immediate plans, Koevermans said, “The AIFF Acadamies intend to nurture talent across the length and breadth of this great country. Once the Regional and the Elite Academies are in place, the pipeline would get bigger. I will also be watching the Federation Cup and I-League matches and scout for more faces in the National Team.

What, in Koevermans’ view, were the striking features of India’s campaign in the Nehru Cup? “The boys were never daunted against the likes of Syria and Cameroon and even Nepal and Maldives, all of whom are ahead of us in the FIFA rankings. The attitude of the boys was most heartening. On the eve of the final, I had asked them to dream. They did and now the entire nation has started to dream. That we were able to finish our engagements without any injuries speaks about our fitness levels. It was a team effort. If there were Sunil (Chetri), Subrata (Paul), Nabi, Mehtab (Hossain) on one side, on the other side there were Lenny (Rodrigues), Francis (Fernandes), Raju (Gaikwad), Sanju (Pradhan) and others who pushed them. The bench also rose to the occasion whenever needed.

Chetri was forthcoming too. When asked the reasons that swung the campaign India’s way even without some stalwarts in the team, the India captain noted, “What does a stalwart mean? For me, Subrata is a stalwart; so is Gouramangi Singh, Mehtab and Nabi. For me, Lenny, Francis and Raju are also stalwarts. It was a team effort which saw us through. I’m sure, none in the country ever believed we would beat Cameroon in the final. Can you single out any one player in the final or even throughout the tournament? You won’t be able to. It was a team of 11 players plus the bench, the support staff backed by the fans and the media.”

The captain, Chetri, adjudged the man of the tournament, confessed the win meant a lot for Indian football. “This is the beginning of a new era. The job of a player is to carry out the instruction of the coach. We did just that. That’s our job. It’s a new bunch of players who now form the nucleus of the team. Three months ago, we wouldn’t even have thought that Lenny, Francis, Sanju, Robin (Singh), Raju, Denzil (Franco) and others would play such stellar roles. What one seems to have missed is that the players in the pipeline drafted themselves into the squad with ease.”

The final word had to come from Nabi, the rock who thwarted all teams. Having played a stellar role, holding the defence and inspiring the forwards, how did he assess his own show and the team’s? “Football is a team game. It is not only about me.

Mishtu (Subrata Pal) was always inspiring me from behind and his constant pep talk charged me up. The bench also is an integral part. They always remind you when, where and whom to mark. They yell out certain instructions which are very helpful.

“The success would never have been possible without all the coaching staff and the players. Having said that, I am proud of the way I played and happy that I could live up to expectations. As far as assessing the team is concerned, we have punched above our weight and Indian football is going in the right direction. That’s all I can say.”

When asked to compare this Nehru Cup win with the previous ones, Nabi concluded, “I have been an integral part of the team this time and played every match. In 2007 and 2009, I wasn’t a part of all the starting XIs. So this Nehru Cup is very special for me and I must say, also for the team. We adopted a new system and beat Cameroon in the final playing in that style. It’s incredible. We lost to Cameroon in the first game, and then came back from behind in the final. After playing 120 minutes of end to end high-drama football we won in shootouts. It shows the character of the side.”

True, Indian football needed character and it has acquired one. It is for Koevermans and his team now to take the momentum forward. Chetri and the young brigade are now committed to ensure that the baby steps taken in the Nehru Cup would turn into major strides.