Bhaichung Bhutia hugs Sunil Chhetri after the final. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Aug. 13: A baby-faced star fired in three goals and a young Kashmiri played like a man possessed as India tonight stormed into the final rounds of the 2011 Asian Cup football championship after 24 years in the wilderness.
Its a great moment for Indian football, said midfielder Mehrajuddin Wadoo, unshed tears glistening in his eyes under the floodlights, far away from his bloodied land now teetering on the edge of a separatist precipice.
For the past few months, we were like a cohesive unit, Mehraj, Jammu and Kashmirs lone representative in the team and the first to embrace captain Bhaichung Bhutia, added. You can see the result for yourself.
The victory on the soccer field came a few hours before Abhinav Bindra, who won for his medal-starved nation an Olympic gold and shot down a jinx, landed in Delhi.
Delhi boy Sunil Chhetri, who had said before the match the summit clash would be the most important 90 minutes of his career, scored thrice as India strolled past defending champions Tajikistan 4-1 in the final of the AFC Challenge Cup for a direct entry to Doha, Qatar.
The last time India had made it to the finals of the Asian Cup ó whose winner automatically qualifies for the Fifa Confederations Cup ó was in 1984 under Yugoslav coach Ciric Milovan.
This time, too, another foreign coach was at the helm ó Englands Bob Houghton.
Tonight, I am going to take a glass of wine and sleep peacefully, Houghton said after the triumph that followed the Nehru Cup win against Syria last August on the same ground, Ambedkar Stadium. Then I will think about what next.
Bhaichung, however, will not be able to put his lips to the flagon of victory immediately. The inspirational skipper, who added another goal for the hosts, suffered a collision on the field and had to be taken to hospital for a couple of stitches on his lips.
Chhetri could have tonight beaten any cricketer hands down in terms of popularity. Hundreds waited outside the stadium for a glimpse of the local hero and Chhetri, flanked by his family, didnt disappoint.
It would be wrong to say that I was not thrilled, said the striker set to be the next poster boy of Indian football. But then, I was waiting for this day. I dedicate this win to my family members.
Houghton was full of praise for Chhetri. He is remarkable, brave and honest. He never gives up.
He also had a good word for the goalkeeper, Calcutta boy Subrata Paul, whom he had once described as incredibly courageous.
He has got consistency and makes great saves. He is very athletic and explosive, the coach said.
The best comment of the day came from the captain and the Most Valuable Player of the Tournament.
It was good, but only the beginning. We are now prepared to go a long way. But this is the greatest win of my career, Bhaichung said.