India is all set to play in AFC Asia Cup for the first time since 1984. Overall, this is only the third time that it is competing in Asia’s elite tournament. India qualified to the 2011 Asia Cup by virtue of winning AFC Challenger Cup in 2008. Let us take a look at how India has fared up till now in the Asia Cup.
Asia Cup was started in 1956. The tournament got off to an extremely modest start as a lot of nations including India, didn’t participate in the inaugural edition. Asian Games or Olympic Games football was much more important in those days and India took those tournaments more seriously. India did enter the qualifying round for Asia Cup in 1960. Led by Syed Abdul Rahim, India was handed an extremely taxing qualifying round, having to play six matches in a gap of eleven days. Rahim’s men started well, with a 1-0 win over Pakistan. Neville D’Souza’s brother, Dereyck scored the match winner. A day later a tired Indian team struggled to cope with Israel’s physical approach, slumping to a 2-1 loss. A well rested Indian team dismantled Iran 3-1 three days later. PK Banerjee, Yusuf Khan and Chuni Goswami, three superstars of that era found the net. That win was sadly the last success in the qualifying campaign, as India lost each of the three remaining matches and failed to qualify.
Finishing runners-up in 1964
Four years later, the tournament was held in Tel Aviv. A lot of things had changed since the last edition. By this time India had captured the gold medal in 1962 Asian Games. Unfortunately, Rahim had passed away, leaving a huge void in Indian football. Rick Wright, his replacement was hardly competent to fill Rahim’s boots but he did inherit a good team, which was bred by his predecessor.
Members of the team that finished runner-up in 1964
Led by Chuni Goswami, India opened the campaign with a 2-0 win over South Korea with Inder Singh and Appalaraju scoring. India was once again undone by Israel. Playing in front of a partisan crowd India lost 2-0 to the hosts. Chuni Goswami, Inder and Sukumar Samajpati struck in a sparkling 3-1 win over Hong-Kong. Two wins were not enough to win the title as India finished runners-up to Israel. Israel finished runners-up twice and won once in the first 3 editions of Asia Cup and proved to be an insurmountable challenge for India.
When India travelled to Rangoon in 1967 to play in qualifiers, the coaching carousel had started for the national team. A bunch of talented players were radar-less without any kind of stability in the coaching staff. It was a hugely disappointing campaign as India failed to win even a single match, losing two and drawing 1-1 with Pakistan.
The national team did spark a mini-turnaround during the 1970 Asian Games by winning the bronze medal. Technically it was equivalent to a silver as the gold medal was shared. Indian officials were in a hurry to leave the Games village – the silver medal of 1970 Asiad is still unclaimed. India didn’t participate in qualifying rounds of Asian Cups between 1972 and 1980. A host of talented players like Sudhir Karmakar, Habib, Akbar and Surajit Sengupta missed the chance to experience Asian level football during their peak years.
Qualifying for the second time
P.K. Banerjee led the team to a creditable performance in New Delhi Asiad of 1982. India re-entered the fold of Asian Cup in 1984. Former Red Star Belgrade coach Ciric Milovan had taken over the team at that time. Milovan was a master tactician and under him India played some of its best football of the last 30 years. Milovan’s highest point was certainly the match against Carlos Bilardo’s Argentina in Nehru Cup. However, qualifying for Asia Cup was also a big achievement during his tenure. He had assembled an impressive team. In Atanu Bhattacharya, India had a ‘keeper who made it to Asian all stars team. Pem Dorji, Bikash Panji, Prasanta Banerjee, Parminder Singh, Babu Mani and Derek Perriera were all competent players. Veterans Shabbir Ali (a star player in India’s Asian Youth Cup winning team of 1974) and Subrata Bhattacharya added experience to a young squad. Then there was Krishanu Dey, one of the most skilful players of his generation, a man known for his defence splitting passes.
Ciric Milovan (centre) brought some good results in his era
The team was led by Sudip Chatterjee, a no nonsense defensive half and a capable leader. India began the qualifying campaign with a blitz, beating Yemen 4-0 and Malaysia 2-1. Shabbir scored a brace as Pakistan was swept aside 2-0. A loss to South Korea didn’t prevent the team from qualifying for the Asia Cup only for the second time. The team sadly, failed to deliver in the main tournament. India lost three out of four matches and a 0-0 draw against Iran was the only consolation.
A really long and dark tunnel
Attempts to qualify for next few Asian Cups inevitably failed. India lost four out of five qualifying matches in 1988 Asian Cup including a 3-0 loss to UAE. By the time the 1992 version arrived, India had found a certain I.M Vijayan. Vijayan was a player who could easily stand up to the best in Asia, when fit. He scored 2 goals as India beat Pakistan 2-0 in first qualifier. He could do nothing as Iran bundled his team out in the next match with a 3-0 win. Uzbek coach Rustam Akhramov had won gold medal in the 1994 Asian Games football. He was drafted as coach in the mid-90s. His over-experimentations and faulty selections led to a humiliating 7-1 loss to Indonesia and a 5-2 loss to Malaysia before the 1996 Asia Cup. Sukhwinder Singh’s team didn’t play a single friendly before the qualifying rounds of 2000 Asia Cup. The results were predictably negative though less humiliating. India went down fighting against Uzbekistan and UAE, drew with Bangladesh and defeated Sri Lanka. Bolstered by Vijayan, Baichung Bhutia, Rennedy Singh and Basudev Mandal, India scored eight goals in four matches but were let down by a weak defence.
North Korea stood in the way of qualification for 2004 Asia Cup. Stephen Constantine had to do without Baichung, Debjit Ghosh and Venkatesh for the away game. India played under freezing conditions in Pyong Yong, and lost 2-0. Things looked brighter in return leg as Vijayan put India ahead after 30 minutes. Alvito D’Counha, playing one of his best matches for the national team, created several chances which were wasted by Yadav and Alex Ambrose. North Korea equalised in 2nd half and the match ended 1-1, with India losing 3-1 on aggregate. The least said about the 2007 Asia Cup qualifying campaign, the better it is. AIFF put together a coaching team of Nayimuddin and PK Banerjee, two of the most successful coaches in Indian football. The whole campaign was nightmarish as India was grouped together with Saudi Arabia and Japan. Matches resembling tennis scores followed – 6-0 and 0-3 losses to Japan and 7-1, 0-5 losses to Saudi. India conceded 24 goals in 6 matches, finishing bottom of qualifying group. Amidst reports of player rebellion, the veteran coaches were sacked unceremoniously. Bob Houghton was brought in after a a few matches. He could change nothing.
When India hosted AFC Challenger Cup in 2008, it was clear that this tournament was its best chance the play in Asia Cup again. India didn’t begin well, barely defeating minnows Afghanistan with a Climax Lawrence goal deep into injury time. The team had to rely on an own goal to earn a draw against Tajikistan. Baichung Bhutia rolled back the years with a beautiful brace in the last group match. On a rain soaked field in Hyderabad India beat Turkmenistan 2-1 to make it to knock-out round. In the knock-out round the Sunil Chhetri show began. Semi-final match against Myanmar was tied at 0-0 till the 81st minute when Chhetri scored a delightful “double header” to win the match. Before the goal, Subrata Pal had pulled off two miraculous saves to keep India in the match.
Winning the AFC Challenger Cup in 2008
The final against Tajikistan was one of the most memorable matches of all time for Indian football fans. Even during the golden era of 1951-1962, India never won a final by such a thumping score-line. India was up 3-0 in first 23 minutes! Eventually the match ended 4-1 in India’s favoor, as Chhetri bagged a brilliant hattrick. Baichung’s leadership was praised while India discovered two new stars in Subrata and Sunil. Bob Houghton had finally managed to get India back into the elite competition of Asian football, after a gap of 24 years.
India hasn’t won a match in Asian Cup since defeating Hongkong on 2nd June, 1964. Will the jinx be broken in 2011?
Right now things don’t look too positive as India has been placed in group of death with Australia, Bahrain and South Korea. Irrespective of the result, it is carnival time for Indian football lovers – the national team is finally playing against the best in Asia, enjoy the moment while it lasts.
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