|Sunil Chetri vies for the ball with an Afghan player,
in Kathmandu, on Wednesday. (AFP)
Kathmandu: India surrendered the SAFF Championship title here on Wednesday when they suffered a humiliating 0-2 defeat against Afghanistan in the final. It was Afghanistan’s maiden title in 10 editions of the eight-nation meet.
In the previous edition played in New Delhi, Afghanistan finished runners-up. They lost to India 0-4. The Afghans, who scored once in each half through Mustafa Azadzoy and Sandjar Ahmadi, broke into instant celebrations immediately after the final whistle.
As their footballers and team officials sang and prayed on the pitch, the fans, which included a host of Afghan parliamentarians, celebrated the historic moment by wildly cheering the champions and waving the national flag. Afghanistan were truly the deserving winners because of their superior strength, better skill and some spectacular display under the bar by Mansur Fagiriyar. While they crowned themselves as the new force in the region, six-time champions India, on the other hand, were reduced to play the second fiddle for most part of the encounter.
But then, a lot of questions would haunt the Indian fans for a long time after this embarrassing defeat. What really prompted India’s Dutch coach Wim Koevermans to start the match without his best striker and skipper Sunil Chetri was a big mystery. His choice of players also raised eyebrows.
Overall, it was India’s worst show in SAFF Championship for many years. The Koevermans’ boys reached the Nepal capital with the tag of regional powerhouse, but struggled in almost every match.
The defeat against Afghanistan was India’s second in the tournament inside five days, the first coming against hosts Nepal in the group league. They were lucky to draw against Bangladesh and a self-goal by a defender gave India three points against Pakistan.
In SAFF, India always held the upper hand and even won with the juniors when Sukhwinder Singh took an under-23 team to Dhaka in 2009.
On hindsight, Chetri’s exclusion from the starting line-up was the turning point. Once the Germany-based 21-year-old Azadzoy exposed the chinks in the Indian defence by putting Afghanistan ahead in the ninth minute, the Indians played their finest brand of soccer in the tournament for the next half an hour.
The Afghan goalmouth was opened up on a couple of occasions but neither Arata Izumi nor Jeje Lelpekhlua could make use of the chances that came their way. Pity India completely failed to take the advantage when it was evident the Afghan side-backs were finding it difficult to close the gaps.
India did put pressure on the rival defence in the second half but the sting was missing. Afghanistan’s Yusef Mashriqi also did an exceptional job while playing in front of the two central defenders.
Things improved dramatically after Chetri came in at the 60th minute. Though Ahmadi made it 2-0 three minutes later by lobbing the ball over an advancing Subrata Paul, diminutive Chetri revived India’s hopes with some positive forays. But, he, too, was the culprit of missing chances. All said and done, the day belonged to Afghan goalkeeper Fagiriyar, who dished out an outstanding performance. In the semi-final, too, Fagiriyar played a key role in Afghan victory and saved two penalty kicks against hosts Nepal.
Afghanistan: Mansur Fagiriyar; Marouf Jamhour (Hashmatullah Barakza, 71), Mohammad. Rafi, Yusef Mashriqi (Wahid Nadim, 92) and Farzad Ghulam, Mustafa Hadid, Haroon Amiri, Sanjar Ahmadi (Ahmad Hatifie, 76), Belal Arezou, Mujtab Faiz and Mustafa Azadzoy.
India: Subrata Paul; Nirmal Chetri (Dawson Fernandes, 86), Arnab Mondal, Gouramangi Singh, Syed Rahim Nabi; Lenny Rodrigues, Mehtab Hussain, Francis Fernandes and Arata Izumi; Jeje Lalpekhlua (Sunil Chetri, 60) and Robin Singh.
Referee: Shamsuzzaman Tayeb Hasan (Bangladesh)