As the referee Fareed Ali Mohamed Almarzouqi from UAE blew the final whistle at the Jelan Besar Stadium in Singapore on the 24th of September 2008, eighteen players and a coach fell knees first into the ground clutching their faces in utter disbelief and the tiny state of Goa erupted with tears in their eyes. Their homegrown heroes had achieved the impossible. A stunning come back from behind to clinch a 4-3 win over Home United in Singapore after drawing the home leg 1-1 at the Gachibowli in Hyderabad meant that Dempo Sports Club tread the path that no other team in India had walked before – the semifinals of the AFC Cup – Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League. Dempo’s teary eyed brave hearts couldn’t believe what they had just accomplished. Dempo Sports Club suddenly became India’s face in Asia overtaking East Bengal FC, who until 2008 were India’s most successful club in the history of AFC Cup.
After drawing 1-1 in the first leg at Hyderabad, Dempo had their backs against the wall. Add to that they were missing their inspirational coach Armando Colaco who met with a bike accident and was convalescing at home. But assistant coach Mauricio Afonso was in no mood to give up. They matched the Home United team shot for shot, which ironically had Steve Darby, a former football pundit with ESPNSTAR as one of their coaching staffs.
2008: The Golden Year
The incredible story of 2008 started in March. It was a journey that would eventually turn Dempo’s small time heroes into idols that the entire Indian football fraternity would look up to. Their first game of their golden campaign started on 11th March 2008. Dempo were playing at their home ground at Fatorda, Margao against Lebanese club Al Ansar. It was an easy victory for them with their old warhorse Ranti Martins scoring two goals and Chidi Edeh getting the third in that 3-1 win. It was only their second win in the AFC Cup, the first being the win against Merv in 2006.
But then, back to back defeats- against Sur at Oman where they lost 3-2 and a 0-4 spanking against Al Muharraq of Bahrain at Fatorda meant they were already playing the catch up game and probably needed to win their remaining three fixtures and that too with reasonably big margins in order to qualify for the next stage. Their next game was against the toughest team in the group and probably the team billed as one of the favourites to lift the AFC Cup that year – Al Muharraq. Dempo brave-hearts were playing away under lights on a cold desert night. But as they say – Cometh the Hour Cometh the Men – and Dempo’s blue army incredibly stunned the Bahrain champions 2-1 in their home den to keep alive their hopes of making it to the next round for the first time ever. The I-League champions opened the scoring as Robert Silva’s free kick was flicked by Chidi Edeh for Martins to net from close range. Dempo doubled their lead later as Martins’ first time volley from Silva’s free-kick found the back of the net.
That win made them believe they could compete against the strong West Asian sides who had unmatched financial power understandably due to their large petroleum reserves. A draw against Al Ansar at Lebanon meant that if they won their final game against Sur at Fatorda they would be in the knockout stages of the AFC Cup for the first time in their history.
The stage was set for their final group game against Sur of Oman at Fatorda. The I-League was already in the final rounds during that time. It was a hot May afternoon at Goa and probably the Sur players found Dempo’s attacking duo of Chidi Edeh and Ranti Martins too hot to handle. Both players scored a brace each and Climax netted the fifth to seal an amazing 5-2 victory that put them in the knockout round for the first time in their history. Dempo finished their engagements in the group stage with ten points, a point behind Al Muharraq, with three wins, a draw and two defeats.
The Asian monsoon meant that the quarterfinals came only in September. Dempo, by then, had already won the I-League pipping Churchill Brothers on goal difference. But crucially they lost Edeh Chidi to Mohun Bagan during the off season transfers. Dempo were drawn to play Home United, Singapore’s Champion Club. AFC rules stipulated that all knockout round matches had to be played under lights. That rule meant Dempo had to play their home matches at the Gachibowli in Hyderabad as their stadium at Margao didn’t have floodlights. They drew 1-1 at Hyderabad with former Churchill Brothers striker Mboyo Iyomi – Chidi’s replacement getting them the equalizer late in the 77th minute.
A week later they traveled to face Home United at Singapore on an artificial pitch that they were not used to and over the top of that they had to do it without their injured coach. They had already created history by reaching the quarterfinals for the first time but they could take their game to the next level by beating Home United and becoming the first Indian side to reach the semi finals of the AFC Cup. The equation was simple. Either a win or a high scoring draw would take them to the semis. They began with a stunning goal in the 11th minute when their Congolese striker Iyomi got on the score sheet giving them a 1-0 lead. The goal was valuable in the sense that it cancelled out Home United’s away goal advantage.
Peres de Oliveira, Home United’s Brazilian skipper equalized in the 14th minute to make it 1-1-. But Dempo seemed at home in Singapore and their Brazilian talisman Beto got his first in that years AFC Cup and more importantly Dempo’s second to give them a 2-1 lead in the 25th minute after heading in a super cross from Clifford Miranda.
But soon after Home United got the lead for the first time in the match with a double strike. They first drew 2-2 after Kengne Ludovick was brought down in box resulting in a penalty. Peres de Oliveira’s penalty was parried by Abhijit Mondal but Indra Sahdan slotted home the rebound. Two minutes later Indra Sahdan got his 2nd goal on the night diverting a cross from Loudovick into the Dempo net. Dempo certainly had their backs to the wall. But just as the referee was about to blow the half time whistle Climax Lawrence’s low drive in injury time made it 3-3. It was an incredible 45 minutes at the Jelan Besar stadium. Dempo knew that as things stood they were knocking the doors of the semi finals.
The second half started with Dempo growing in confidence and enjoying a lot of possession. The result was put beyond doubt when Beto scored his second in the 83rd minute drilling a low shot past goalkeeper Lewis making it 4-3 on the night. It was mission accomplished for Dempo. As the final whistle blew, history was made. Dempo became the first Indian team ever to reach the semi finals of the AFC Cup.
And though they eventually lost in the semi finals to Safa of Lebanon, they created ripples in Asia and enhanced their reputation in the continent.
Dempo’s superb performance in 2008 seemed to rub off in 2009 where they again qualified for the knockout rounds beating the likes of Al Maged of Syria, Al Muharraq of Bahrain and Al Faisaly of Jordan eventually losing to Kuwait FC away in the one off quarterfinal play-off.
This year Dempo will play in the AFC Champions League qualifiers. They play Al-Sadd of Qatar on the 19th of February at the Sheikh Jassim Bin Hammad stadium, one of the venues at this year’s Asian Cup. Dempo are no strangers to AFC Champions League qualifiers having lost to Al Sharjah 3-0 in their only previous appearance in 2009. The format does seem unlucky to them – being made to play only a one-off game and that too away – something that has prompted Armando Colaco to write to the AFC urging them to make it a two leg affair.
Nevertheless Dempo have been boosted by the return of their Indian internationals and they will definitely look forward to beating Al Sadd and making history. In fact Climax and company have played at the stadium during the Asia Cup and that experience will hold them in good stead. If they manage to pull off an upset, they will be the first Indian team to make it to the group stages of the AFC Champions League. Should they put it past the Qatari’s they will be placed in Group B of the Champions League along with Al Nassr (Saudi Arabia), Esteghlal (Iran) and Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan. A defeat in the qualifiers would mean they will play in the AFC Cup in Group A along with Al Ansar (Libya), Al Tilal (Yemen) and Nazaf (Uzbekistan)
Dempo’s moment of reckoning has finally arrived. In 24 hours they could be immortals if they manage to pull off a stunning upset. This is their chance, their final frontier. Its time to flood Qatar with a sea of blue.