The fragrance of VICTORY

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

INDIAN football showed glimpes of a resurrection when its squad conquered host Vietnam in the final to lift the glittering LG Cup in Ho Chi Minh City, on August 10. Many see it as a renaissance in the country's soccer, but there are many more who prefer to hold back their comments. The achievements in the past - the two Asian Games golds, a fourth position in the Olympics, success in the Asia Cup and Merdeka Cup till the senior team last won the Singapore Pesta Sukan Cup (1971) - soon slipped into oblivion.

Football sunk into a period of decadence in the seventies mainly due to administrative apathy - a strange way of gloating over the past and turning a blind eye towards the future. Though there were brief periods of hope with the launch of the Nehru Cup in 1982, the euphoria dissipated soon in the absence of a title. The nineties presented a bleaker scene.

The Indian team which won the LG Cup in Ho Chi Minh City.-S. PATRONOBISH

The introduction of the National Football League in 1996 rekindled the club football fervour and saw the advent of a lot of foreign players. These players were drafted mainly to spearhead a team's fortunes as the country's talent pool did not offer much. There emerged a few players of exceptional abilities. This somewhat enriched the club contests reviving the interest in the sport. The sport's administration, apparently feeling the need of something constructive, too underwent a reshuffle and sported a dynamic approach under the present secretary, Alberto Colaco. Belated steps were taken to initiate the youth development programme and the hunt for a proper coach brought in Englishman Stephen Constantine.

Constantine ably shepherded the rookies and a few seniors - provided to him by his predecessor and the present technical director Sukhvinder Singh - and succeeded in transforming them into a bunch of disciplined trainees. Keeping the ensuing Busan Asian Games as the target, the group started training at the sport's most modern facility in the country - Tata Football Academy at Jamshedpur - and the results quickly followed as the team excelled in its first exposure trip. The 39-year-old English coach professed a modern diagnosis of the Indian ailments and introduced what he called the "nasty football." Constantine explained his theory as a method of playing hard. He first worked on the fitness of the players and used sports medicine to attain the desired physical tune-up. Having assured himself of a reasonably fit team he discouraged safe play while asking the players to exert more and play tough at times to gain a psychological advantage on the opponent. "The forcefulness helped in gaining positive results," the coach defended on his triumphant return after annexing the LG Cup.

Constantine's words reflected the long-lost Indian pride: "our achievement has put the country back on the soccer map, at least in Asia." Santo Mitra, former international and the director of India's Asian Games project, waxed eloquent about Constantine's methods: "he is a good observer of the game and knows the modern methods of training. He has been able to earn the respect of the players and as a result has been producing results rather quickly." Added to this was the presence of the captain Bhaichung Bhutia.

India's performance in Vietnam had one distinction - the team never lost a match there. Starting its group league - assignments it fumbled against Singapore and escaped with a 2-2 draw. With the Asian Games rules stipulating only three players above the age of 23 in the team, the Indian contingent sported a fresh and dynamic look with nine international debutants. Mitra said that lack of match practise appeared to come in the way of the team's performance in the first match. The six team meet - having among others Vietnam u-23 and senior teams, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand - saw India start its campaign promisingly. It took the lead in the third minute in the first match against Singapore which saw its defender, Mohammad Fizal, gift a suicidal goal. But the lead quickly disappeared as the Indians, trailed 1-2 at half time. K. Ajayan saved the day for the Indians bringing up the equaliser in the 65th minute.

Departing from the usual 4-4-2, India adopted the 3-5-2 system and achieved good results as an extra number in midfield helped it maintain the balance in attack and defence. The three man defence - with Devjit Ghosh and Mahesh Gawali as full back and Dipak Mondal as the sweeper - looked tentative in the first match but performed appreciably later on. The five-man midfield centred around the talented Shanmugam Venkatesh, who admirably performed the role of a schemer. He was supported on the sides by the gritty Jo Paul Ancheri, K. Ajayan, and Satish Bharti (playing mainly as a substitute). While combining the role of a wing-half and a side-back, Constantine used the speedy players on the flanks. Samir Naik remained constant on the right while Bijen Singh and Tomba Singh shared the spoils on the left. India missed the services of the talented winger, Renedy Singh, who was rested, after he pulled a muscle during training. Bijen and Tomba - said to be one of the finds of the tournament - filled up Renedy's place admirably, said Mitra. The strike-force had a good mix of youth and experience as Alex Ambrose and Abhishek Yadav - generally used as a substitute upfront - paired nicely with Bhutia to make the Indian attack reasonably dynamic.

India sprung back in the second match and drubbed the Vietnam u-23 side 3-1. Man-of-the-match Bhutia, Tomba, and Yadav were the scorers as India topped the group and ensured a berth in the semifinals. "Our boys appeared many notches better than what they had performed in the league stage," said Mitra about the semifinal against Indonesia. The Indians treated the capacity crowd at the Thong Nhat stadium with a brilliant brand of attacking soccer. An exchange of quick wall-passes between Bhutia and Venkatesh opened up the Indonesian defence as early as in the sixth minute and the latter availed the opportunity scoring the lead for India. Indians dominated the proceedings thereafter but had to wait till the 62nd minute when Devjit Ghosh scored following a flag-kick. Eight minutes later Bijen Singh, completed the tally. The final saw India retaining the tempo and Bhutia played the star yet again in realising the 'incredible win' against the host's senior team. Egged on by a vociferous home crowd Vietnam raced to a 2-0 cushion by the 20th minute. Bhutia rose to the occasion and pulled one back in the 30th minute before striking the equaliser 12 minutes into the second session. The stupendous fight-back - obviously prompted by the "nasty game" recipe - by India apparently smothered the host's attack and left super-sub Abhishek Yadav to score the winner a few minutes before the final whistle. Bhutia's service earned him his second man-of-the-match while Yadav became the darling of the nation for his singular contribution in the final.

Speaking about the gains from the tournament, Constantine said that the team's achievement will help India improve its FIFA rankings. Added to this is the fact that the players got vital experience of playing against quality Asian teams. He praised the players for a great show of discipline and self-belief. "We beat Indonesia, the three-time champion, and also the host twice. More so, the level of self-belief of the team can be gauged from the fact that we scored three times after 80 minutes to realise the wins," the coach added.

The winning squad:

Goalkeepers: Sangram Mukherjee, Rajat Ghosh Dastidar, Naseem Akhtar; Defenders: Mahesh Gawli, Samir Naik, Deepak Mondal, Satish Bharti, Arun Malhotra, Monitomba Singh, Devjit Ghosh; Midfielders: Renedy Singh, Sasthi Duley, S.Venkatesh, Tomba Singh, K. Ajayan, Jo Paul Ancheri; Forwards: Alex Ambrose, Bijen Singh, Abhishek Yadav, Praveen Kumar, Bhaichung Bhutia.

Chief coach: Stephen Constantine. Technical Director: Sukhvinder Singh. Assistant coaches: Derek Pereira and Alok Mukherjee. Project Director: Santo Mitra. Leader of the delegation: T. R. Govindarajan.