| Pradeep exults after scoring the lone goal of the match. (AFP) See Sport
New Delhi, Aug. 29: Cricket’s poor cousin has struck back.
Indian football fans celebrated a rare triumph tonight when Bhaichung Bhutia’s boys surged past higher-ranked Syria to lift the ONGC Nehru Cup for the first time.
The captain, who yesterday said the Syrians are not “unbeatable”, set up the only goal of the match when he headed down a pass for an onrushing N.P. Pradeep to fire home on the run.
That was in the 43rd minute. Nearly an hour later, cries of “Chak De, India” rose as Bhutia and British coach Bob Houghton led the team out of the floodlit Ambedkar Stadium.
“For 56 years, we were waiting for this day,” said Subhash Chopra, president of the Delhi Soccer Association and former Assembly Speaker.
“India won their last football title in Delhi in the 1951 Asian Games. Soccer fans in the city will celebrate right through the night.”
The entire Indian bench ran onto the pitch the moment referee S. Surendra blew the final whistle. A section of the crowd also gate-crashed into the field to join the victory celebrations.
“I am proud to lead a team which has become part of history. This is the most memorable moment of my life. Never before I could lead the national team to victory in front of my countrymen,” said Bhutia.
The last time India reached the final of a major international tournament was in 2002 when they beat Vietnam to win the LG Cup. In 2005, India won the SAFF Cup in Pakistan, beating Bangladesh.
“It is a major step forward and should build confidence in the players,” he added. “This is just the beginning.”
If Bhutia and Pradeep were the stars of the day, Houghton was also a popular man tonight.
“The chief coach has done a tremendous job,” said Syed Nayeemuddin, the man whom Houghton succeeded.
The victory also meant that Houghton’s boys, unlike their pampered cricketing cousins, had emerged a united team under a foreign coach.
“For one year, I worked hard with the boys. This triumph is a reward for that,” Houghton said. “The credit goes to the boys, not to me.”
All India Football Federation chief Priya Ranjan Das Munshi was so overwhelmed that he even congratulated Bhutia’s wife Madhuri. “You are lucky for us, you should come for every match,” the Union minister told her before introducing her to all the other dignitaries present.
In Calcutta, former captain and legendary striker Chuni Goswami described the victory as a “great moment”.
“I am sure football will now get a fillip. Cricket may have more popularity now, but soccer is the people’s game. And youngsters will now be inspired to take up the game in large numbers,” he said.
Although Syria were the favourites, a defeat would have been a setback for India as it stood to lose the momentum it had gained during the course of the tournament.
Bhutia’s “close friend” Dhanraj Pillay summed it up. “Whether it is hockey or football, the success of the national team is always welcome,” the hockey stalwart said.