Monday, August 31, 2009

Force India

Tonight I saw an incredible game of football – it was a cup final. The away team in red and the home team in blue were playing an open, entertaining brand of joga bonito that left me breathless. Even though after normal time and first half of extra time, the game was scoreless, the match was exciting with end-to-end goalmouth action entertaining the packed house. The home team scored with a wickedly curving free kick that in at the bottom of the near post with about five minutes of the second half of extra time left – I was absolutely ecstatic! Even let out a couple of seetees. My team had scored and the cup was ours. In the dying seconds of the match, the away team equalized with a flying header that stunned the crowd. The match headed to penalties… heart stopping stuff, indeed. (On a more serious note, my colleague told me his harrowing time last night when his grandfather actually suffered a cardiac arrest while watching the match - The poor old man had couldn’t bear the excitement and had a heart attack for real. Here’s wishing him a speedy recovery! Talk about the glorious unpredictability of sport not being for those with weak hearts!)

For those of you who think that I am describing a Champions League game between Machester United and Chelsea, think again. Nope I haven’t deserted the United cause – that is blasphemous to even imagine! The game I am talking about was last night’s Nehru Cup final between India (in blue) and Syria (in red). An what a match it was! Definitely the best I have seen in Indian football in recent times.
Goalkeeper Subrata Paul emerged hero as India beat Syria 5-4 via sudden death in the final to win the five-nation Nehru Cup football tournament at the Ambedkar stadium in Delhi. The capacity crowd in the stadium could not have asked for a better show of football with a nail-biting finish!

The teams were locked goalless at full-time and 1-1 after 120 minutes of entertainment with both teams having given their all. The 22-year-old goalie brought off three fine saves, including one in sudden-death, to help the hosts retain the title. Paul has been an enigma in club football for his team Mohun Bagan but seems to give his best every time he puts on the India jersey.

Renedy Singh put India ahead in the eight minute of the second period of extra-time curling home a free-kick from 35 yards, before Ali Dyab darted in from nowhere to head home the equalizer from a Raja Rafe pin-point cross for the Syrians, just seconds from the final whistle.

Climax Lawrence, Sunil Chhetri, Steven Dias, Anwar and Surkumar Singh were successful from the spot for India while Renedy Singh's sent the goalkeeper the wrong only to see his kick ricochet off the upright. India looked set to win again as they led going into the last penalty kick. Subrata Paul was in his elements – each time the Syrians stepped up to the spot, his mindgames began – and they worked too when he saved two attempts on the trot. But the Syrian captain and goalkeeper scored (this time Paul didn’t resort to any mindgames – perhaps out of mutual respect for his opposite number), Mehrajuddin Wadoo’s kick was saved and Syria equalised with their next spot kick thus taking the match into sudden death. Subrata Paul saved the second kick in sudden death to ensure an Indian win.

The match had its fair share of drama on the touchline too – the Syrian coach behaved like Jose Mourinho of his Chelsea days, complaining relentlessly each time the referee made a call against Syria. A member of the Syrian support staff was red-carded and sent off – ala Arsene Wenger (tsk tsk – when will the Gunners ever set a good example!).

Sunil Chetri perhaps had the best chance to score in regulation time when he beat his marker to make a fine run into the box only to shoot marginally wide! The Indian skipper Baichung Bhutia also had a great match and came in for “special treatment” from the Syrians, especially late into the match – one of these incidents got India the free kick in the first place from which Renedy did a David Beckham to nearly win it for India. Baichung was named the man of the tournament for his efforts – just desserts for the man who just played his 100th match for India and has served the nation with such distinction. (His 100th match must have been scripted in heaven – he scored, India won to get into the Nehru Cup finals and he won the man of the match award!) Maybe now AIFF and the clubs involved will have some shame and reinstate him to his rightful place – as a leader on the football pitch…

Truth be told – there were plenty of “agricultural” shots on display too – but that is to be expected given the FIFA rankings of both teams. But all in all, it was India’s night. The victory gave India coach Bob Houghton a hat-trick of titles, having earlier guided the team to the last Nehru Cup crown in 2007 (coincidentally beating Syria on that instance too) and AFC Cup Challenge in 2008. Maybe things will turn around for Indian football after all.

India's successful defense of Nehru cup 2009 has to go down as her best moment in footballing history, in the past quarter of a century. For the last significant achievement, one would need to rewind as early as the bronze medal performance in the 1970 Asiad. By all parameters, this triumph would come better off than the LG cup win in Vietnam 2002 or the Nehru cup win in Delhi, 2007.

I admire the way Subrata Paul has managed to stay focused after coming fire following the death of Brazilian striker Cristiano Junior. Junior – RIP. Paul has been assailed by a section of the Indian football fraternity including some top players after television replays seemed to show that he had hit Junior after the Brazilian had scored the second goal for his club Dempo Sports Club during the Federation Cup final on December 5, 2003. Paul was just nineteen at the time. The cause of death of Junior had been identified as cardiac arrest as later clarified by the erstwhile Bangalore police commissioner S. Mariswamy. Dempo also complained that facilities on the ground were inadequate, and moreover, Junior was transported to the Hosmat Hospital instead of Mallya Hospital, which was right next to the Kanteerava Stadium where the match was being played, thus losing valuable time. He was declared dead on arrival at Hosmat Hospital. All I can say is AIFF wakeup!! (To be fair to then, the month long training camp in Barcelona before the tournament was a good start…) Invest in Indian football – learn something from my employers and the TFA. Open more suchacademies. Encourage youngsters to take up the game – cash in on the interest levels generated by the European Leagues now fanatically followed in India as proved by the crowds at games that showed that more people from a larger cross section of the nation are following the game. Improve the quality of the I-League. And please get rid of all the politicians from the administration of the game!

Naysayers and critics can continue to whine that we beat a low ranked team of a nation which is perhaps one tenth our size. I’ll take the victory – after all we bear a country around 55 slots higher in the ranking ladder. Maybe Indian football is finally on its way to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe, just maybe, one day we can compete with the best in the world. I hope that happens in my lifetime – what more could a Bong ask for?!

To sum up things, I was pleasantly shocked with the quality of entertainment and drama the match produced. The last time I can remember that I watched an Indian team play with such rapt attention was when East Bengal won their Asian Medal a few years ago. And all I can say is, more of the same please. Move over Team India – here comes Force India.