| The jubilant Indian team in New Delhi on Wednesday. (AP)
New Delhi: For most fans at the Ambedkar Stadium on Wednesday, India’s 1-0 victory over Syria in the ONGC Nehru Cup final was a huge boost at a time when Fifa has special attention on the country.
But few would know that it was a personal triumph for British coach Bob Houghton, who plotted a coup of sorts with his sharp football acumen and ability to understand the problems of Indian soccer. By executing that plot to perfection, Bhaichung Bhutia & Co. simply offered a salute to their coach’s hard work and self-belief.
Lack of success, Houghton knew, was the main crisis Indian football was suffering from. He had urged the All India Football Federation to revive the Nehru Cup at home and personally selected the teams he wanted to play. His planning and the players’ execution of it were spot-on. Even in the final, he prepared his boys in the right manner to bring out the best out of them. Sole reliance on skills won’t get India the desired result against the strong Syrians, the veteran coach realised.
“Fight it out, he told us”, said Sunil Chhetri after the match. “Never go defensive. Play attacking football,” was Houghton’s instruction.
The ambience matched the occasion. A packed house, sparkling lights, music in the air and cheer leaders created an intoxicating aura in the stands, and some aesthetic display on the field from the players duly complimented it. One could not have asked for more as Bhaichung and his men triggered off a wild celebration. It was a small step but also significant one, keeping in mind the paucity of international titles in our football history.
Captain Bhaichung, still nursing a groin injury, was at his best. He didn’t score a goal, but did everything to keep the Syrians busy. He attacked with vigour and even got physical to upset the Syrians.
The match was won and lost in the first half. Syria made the tactical mistake of getting trapped by India’s gamesmanship. As Bhaichung continued complaining to the referee against the Syrian foul play and at the same time was indulged in body tactics himself, the visitors lost temper.
So incensed were the Syrians that defender Wael Ayan brought the downfall of his own team with a needless foul on Surkumar Singh. As the Nepalese referee S. Surendra flashed red card, the Syrian picked up a bottle near the sideline and almost flung it at the Indian captain.
Ayan’s silly act came soon after India had taken the lead through N. P. Pradeep. Chhetri set the move in motion and found Bhaichung inside the box. The captain could not get proper hold of the ball but paved the way for an onrushing Pradeep to slam it in with precision.
The story of the final was a confirmation of India’s newly found grit and determination and ability to keep their much fancied rivals at bay. Few expected the Indian boys to play on a par with Syria, 39 ranks above India in the Fifa rankings.
Yet, the Indians held the upper hand almost throughout the 90 minutes. Syria were handicapped by the absence of Mohammed Alzeno but that couldn’t take the credit away from the home team. India should have scored at least two more goals but Steven Dias and Bhaichung missed the target from close.
Some of the Indian players were a revelation for the capacity crowd. If goalkeeper Subrata Paul was a picture of confidence, defender Gourmangi Singh was the biggest hit as he completely bottled up star striker Maher Al Sayed.
It was also a kind of rebirth for Mahesh Gawli, rightly adjudged the man of the match. Accused one time of developing cold feet before every big match, Gawli played the game of his life.
“I have finally answered my critics,” was his first reaction. “I had gone through a bad time when I didn’t play a few matches. Today I hope I have proved myself.”
India: Subrata Paul; Surkumar Singh, Mahesh Gawli, Gourmangi Singh, NS Manju; Steven Dias, Climax Lawrence, NP Pradeep, K Ajayan (Clifford Miranda, 80th ); Sunil Chhetri (Tarif Ahnmed, 93rd ), Bhaichung Bhutia (Abhishek Yadav, 91st).
Syria: Mowsasab Blahowss; Ali Dyeb, Mahmoud Al Amena, Khaled M Albaba; Mootassem Alaya (Ali Alrifaai, 83rd), Aatef Jenyat, Wel Ayan, Al Fandi and Feras Esmaeel; Zyad Chhabo and Maher Al Sayed.
Referee: S. Surendra (Nepal).