Wondering whether India’s Nehru Cup truimph last evening was one of the best in the last 25 years or so..
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. This I say with the knowledge that the 2002 win was on away shores (which multiply the difficulty) and the 2007 win was path breaking, one which led to the AFC Challenge Cup. The big difference was the expectation factor. In 2002, most of us took scant interest.
In 2007, none expected India to win – which allowed Bob Houghton the freedom of asking his boys to play their natural game, to put up a display of Indian football. But, having won in 2007, there were expectations of a win this time around – from the country, from the crowd at the Ambedkar stadium, from the coach and from the players within. Had they lost, the paying public, the viewing public and even our own authorities would have started questioning if costly trips to Nou Camp and Dubai are worth the money, whether the team is just overhyped for nothing.
Worse, with the same opposition, Syria (a country around 55 slots higher in the ranking ladder, both times), lined up against, it was known that they would come much better prepared, take the opposition more seriously and have their own reputation to defend. This is what makes defending a title lot tougher, than winning it first time.
There was no room for error this time around and it was bound to be a game of ‘who blinks first, loses’.
Before the cynics jump in, let me assure this game was the game of the weekend! There was no game played across the world which was so much on the knife edge, as the two and quarter hour drama, which unfolded at the Ambedkar stadium. If anyone would like to remind of the Old Trafford clash, I would like to humbly shoot back that the Manchester United – Arsenal game was littered with mis-passes, mistakes, fouls, refereeing errors and the icing on the cake was that a high profile match was decided by ‘an own goal’.
This match, sure, had its share of errors, but was played, like most finals are played – cagey, tactical, conservative, with both teams refusing to cow down. There were even chances for both teams to strike for the first 110 minutes, but either the foot struck a second slower, or a second faster, or a step slower or a step faster – that’s what the pressure of a final does to you.
And then there was the ‘fight fire with fire’. If Renedy Singh’s curling free kick reminded us of a famous England winger by the name ‘David’, the Goliaths just upped the intensity and kept raiding and raiding the Indian goal, till an injury time header gave them a last gasp and well deserved equalizer.
What’s most commendable about India was the way they held on during extra time duration, and the jangling nerves of a penalty shootout. For most viewers, the penalties come like a lottery, but for players it’s a test of character, steel and some luck.
Indian team didn’t have a history where the players were exposed to what the limbs go through during extra time, or the pressure cooker situation of a penalty shootout. This is an area where even the best of teams have floundered. Most notably Holland – when penalties took them out of Euro ’92, Euro ’96, Euro ’00, WC ’98.