Uzbekistan finishes on top

CAN Uzbekistan, the winner of the football event at the Afro-Asian Games and which had sent its Under-20 squad be considered the `champion' of the two continents?

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

The Uzbekistan team which won the gold medal. -- Pic. MD. YOUSUF-

CAN Uzbekistan, the winner of the football event at the Afro-Asian Games and which had sent its Under-20 squad be considered the `champion' of the two continents? In the context of the Games the conclusion has to hold good. But the world knows where Africa is in football and where Asia is, no matter that Japan and Korea proved such a revelation at the World Cup 2002. Comparisons can be odious but suffice it to say that the talent from the dark continent have not only given the game a new dimension by their flair but are also a big draw in the Europe and England leagues.

In the normal course the Afro-Asian Games should have been what it set out for, a competition involving the best of the two continents. Ultimately it never was. Africa did not send noted teams like Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal or even South Africa to name a few. Asia too was not represented by the best like Korea, China and Japan or even by the Gulf nations. In fact for most of the nations in these two continents, the first edition apparently evoked curiosity more than competition. It is said that even the Olympics and the Asian Games started on a hesitant note. Incidentally the Asian Games launch was in India and today there is nothing to parallel this event in terms of content and quality in the continent.

There is thus hope of better times ahead for the Afro-Asian Games but nothing can take away Uzbekistan's rightful place in history nor Asia's note of supremacy in the world's most popular sport in the inaugural edition. Greater still was the fact that the football competition took place at all, after all the dilution and uncertainty! Such was the drama on the eve of the football competition. Initially Cameroon, Nigeria, Morocco and Mozambique were expected, then like a game of musical chairs, names kept changing. Cameroon's withdrawal came at the last minute, its replacement Ghana held the organisers to ransom and ultimately its non-arrival forced rescheduling of matches after the competition began.

An African field comprising Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Burkina Faso was a far cry from the original hype. None of them were world beaters (as it turned out not even Asia beaters) and the setting thus was expectedly disappointing. By FIFA ranking of course, except Rwanda, the other two are ranked above the Asian representatives — Uzbekistan, Iran, Malaysia and host India — with Zimbabwe at the highest at 50. Rwanda is one rung below Uzbekistan which is ranked 110, Malaysia is 117 and India at the bottom at 137.

Zimbabwe's Peter Moyo tries to thwart Bhaichung Bhutia's move in the semifinals which India won. -- Pic. MD. YOUSUF-

On this count alone for India to have reached the final is admirable but, (and that is what will please critics) barring the home team, none was here in full strength. The African sides were without their professionals, who are attached to clubs in Europe. "It is difficult to get them because clubs will release them only for FIFA specified tournaments", said the Yugoslav Coach of Rwanda, Ratomir Dujkovic and he had virtually spoken for the other African teams too. "Our players are all locals" said the Dutch Coach of Burkina Faso, Mart Nooij and that gave further insight of the shape of the teams.

Even the Asian sides Malaysia and Iran were just units to make the numbers. Iran had sent a Navy club team, the shocking revelation coming at the end of its engagements in the league! Malaysia had used the competition to test its fringe players before selecting a few to join the main side which was busy with the Asia Cup qualifiers. "Our players had good experience and that is what we had come here for", said Coach Norizon Bin Bakar without any regret for losing the semi-final berth because of a late surge by Rwanda.

No matter that, as the Indian Coach Stephen Constantine would defend, for India too was without some half a dozen key players. Then again, it is nobody's case that these visiting teams should come without its leading players or at least its Under-23 Olympic outfit if not the best junior squad as Uzbekistan did. That way Uzbekistan came with a clear intention and that was to give its Under-20 squad a good Afro-Asian exposure before the Youth World Cup in the Emirates. That it was the most prepared side was evident from the strides it made en route to the final, when it did not have the services of three key players (sent back for the Asia Cup matches) and yet, as events turned out, be none the worse for it.

"This is our nucleus and from this will come out our next national first rung team. We are now looking to the future. Past is gone", Coach Viktor Borisov was to say on the eve of the competition when asked why Uzbekistan, the 1994 Asian Games champion had slipped in standards lately. That way Borisov must have been the happiest man on that night when Innomov Islam, the tall defender struck a 35 yarder to stun the Indians with just seconds remaining for the match and silence the noisy crowd at the Lal Bahadur stadium. The title had been won, the gold medal had been grabbed but more importantly Uzbekistan had received a major boost on the eve of the Youth World Championship.

Rwanda's Rusanganwa Fredric (on ground) clears the ball to safety as a desperate Rudie Ramli of Malaysia attempts to regain possession. A late surge by Rwanda shut out Malaysia's hopes of entering the semifinals. -- Pic. MD. YOUSUF-

Whatever may have been the quality of the opponents, India would have made history if it had clinched the title. Football in India still lives on past glory in particular the high of the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games gold but that would have changed with an inter-continental gold. The way India went past Rwanda and Malaysia the competition saw a team playing true to form and the convincing win over Zimbabwe in the semi-final, where I.M. Vijayan and skipper Bhaichung Bhutia struck a brace each, it seemed nothing would stop India. Alas, that was not to be.

I.M. Vijayan, who had announced that the Afro-Asian Games was his swansong, was in irresistible form clearly conscious of making his exit in flying colours. Scoring in each match, but the final, Vijayan top-scored with four but he would have traded all of that for a gold medal finish. In the end he left with a heavy heart, notwithstanding the standing ovation he got from all around when he was substituted and bowed out for the last time in an international match.

Vijayan aside, Bhutia even if not at his striking best, kept the frontline busy while Jatin Bist was a revelation as an intermediary. The two Manipuris — Thomba Singh and Renedy Singh were outstanding as suppliers and for their supple movement. If Thomba often had a hand in a goalbound move then Renedy excelled in long shots and crosses. With Jo Paul Anchery strong in the middle and Gawli, M. Suresh (he did not play the final owing to injury) and Satish Bharathi keeping the defence tight the Indian team for once had performed like a well-oiled machine.

In fact this ebullience was what made Uzbekistan cautious in the final. Unlike India, Uzbek did not have a smooth run in the league phase even if it topped the Group (Zimbabwe, Iran and Burkina Faso were its Group opponents) there was a struggle. But then each match was an experiment and each outing provided more food for thought for Borisov. Bikmoev Marat, Saidov, Yaroslav, Suyunov, Konstantin, Shavkat and Innomov Islam names about whom more would be heard, not to forget goalkeeper Nesterov Ignatiy, easily the best goalkeeper of the competition.

India's top-scorer, I. M. Vijayan, being challenged by Jean Paul Habyarimana of Rwanda. India beat Rwanda 3-1 in the league match. -- Pic. MD. YOUSUF-

Ignatiy was one of India's woes in the final, where Uzbekistan missed three key players — Nodirbek, Bikmoev Marat and Ildar. That strengthened the team's resolve and none personified it better than Ignatiy. He stopped a Vijayan try where nine out of ten times the Indian would have emerged the victor. He snuffed Bhutia's carpet drive, plucked any number of aerial balls and in short he was unbeatable and that was the base on which Uzbekistan built its winning path. From caution to attack was a small change in strategy but Uzbekistan heightened India's frustration. Like in chess, it was the end-game that mattered, Innomov proved that leaving Indian goalkeeper Sangram Mukherjee diving in air and falling in despair. The dream had died.

The Africans may have had a holiday in Hyderabad but as is their wont and natural flair a few names will be remembered from this Games. Like Jimmy Irugah Getete, the man who took Rwanda past Ghana for an unprecedented berth in the African Nations Cup next year and Aziz Belinda. Vusumuzi Nyoni and Albert Mbano were the two noted players from Zimbabwe.

The results: Group league:

Gr `A': India 3 (I.M. Vijayan, M. Suresh, (sub) Ashim Biswas ) beat Rwanda 1 (Aziz Balinda); India 2 (Jatin Singh Bisht, Vijayan) beat Malaysia 0; Rwanda 2 (Jimmy Getete) beat Malaysia 1 (Mohd Yahyah).

Gr `B': Zimbabwe 4 (Vusumuzi Nyoni (2), Albert Mbano (2) beat Burkina Faso 1 (Barro Samba Seydou); Uzbekistan 1 (Bikmoev Marat) beat Iran 0; Iran 1 (Syedialal Hosseini) drew with Zimbabwe 1 (Ronald Badza); Uzbekistan 1 (Yaroslav) beat Burkina Faso 0; Zimbabwe 1 (Tsida) drew with Uzbekistan 1 (Suyunov Ihomion); Burkino Faso 2 (Diallo Abdoul, Bationo Germain) beat Iran 1 (Hassan Ashjari).

Semi-finals: India 5 (Vijayan (2), Bhutia (2), Renedy Singh) beat Zimbabwe 3 (Albert Mbano, Mashiri , Simon Chipunza); Uzbekistan 2 (Saidov Mansurjon, Konstantin (golden goal) beat Rwanda 1 (Jimmy Mulisa).

Final: Uzbekistan 1 (Innomov Islam) beat India 0. For bronze: Zimbabwe beat Rwanda 7-5 via penalties (2-2 at full time).