As the 10th edition of the SAFF Championship draws closer, the Indian football team gets ready to launch its assault on a third consecutive title, beginning this weekend. Grouped alongside Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, there seems to be little in the way of a semi-final berth for the blue tigers. India already has a very good record in the 20-year old regional tournament, missing out on the title on only three occasions. As Wim Koeverman’s boys try to achieve a seventh SAFF Cup triumph, it’s time to look back at the six previous Indian successes in the regional tournament.
1993 (Pakistan) – IM Vijayan’s heroics help India lift SAARC Gold Cup
Started as the SAARC Gold Cup, the first edition of the tournament was held in a league format in Pakistan, with five teams taking part in it, including a junior side of the host nation, Pakistan White, whose results weren’t taken into account. India started off its campaign against islanders Sri Lanka, winning the game by a scoreline of 2-0, courtesy of goals from IM Vijayan and Gunabir Singh. The next game was an inconsequential encounter against Pakistan White, which India won 3-1, with legendary forward Vijayan once again on the scoresheet for the blue tigers. With Sri Lanka following up its 4-0 thrashing of Pakistan with a goalless draw against Nepal, India were left needing a victory from their next two games to win the cup. In their following game against neighbours Nepal, it was IM Vijayan who came up with the all-important goal for India, as the latter won by a goal to nil, sealing the first installment of the regional championship in India’s favour.
With the tournament already won, India’s final game against arch-rivals Pakistan was a dead-rubber. India, however, played out a commendable 1-1 draw against the hosts, with Vijayan once again being the goalscorer for the blue tigers. The 1993 SAARC Gold Cup was the beginning of a very joyous journey for India, as the nation went on to dominate in the following editions of the tournament.
1997 (Nepal) – Brilliant Vijayan the star once again as India lift second title
Renamed into the SAFF Gold Cup, the 1997 edition of the tournament was a six-team affair, with three teams each in two groups. The tournament once again witnessed the brilliance of striker IM Vijayan, as the Kerala-born striker scored 6 goals in 4 games to lead India to triumph. Youngster Bhaichung Bhutia brought his NFL form to Kathmandu, and chipped in with 3 goals in the tournament, which eventually proved crucial in India’s victory. After kicking off their campaign with a shaky 3-0 victory over Bangladesh, the Blue Tigers were held to a 2-2 draw by Maldives. India, however, topped their group with 4 points, and progressed to face Pakistan in the semis. Vijayan was the hero once again, as India went on to win 2-0 against their biggest foes, ensuring a final clash with Maldives.
The game against the island nation proved to be a one-sided encounter, as India cruised to a 3-0 lead inside the first 20 minutes, and ended up winning 5-1. The tournament triumph in Kathmandu more than made up for a disappointing campaign in the 1995 edition in Sri Lanka, where the blue tigers had finished winless.
1999 (Goa, India) Blue tigers lift title on home turf
The SAFF Gold Cup came to India in 1999, with Goa playing host to all the games. Grouped alongside Bangladesh and Pakistan, India drew their opening game against the Bengal Tigers, with neither teams on the scoresheet. The Blue tigers followed it up with a 2-0 victory over Pakistan, with Bhutia scoring one of the goals. In the semifinal against Maldives, India were given a run for their money by the tiny island nation, with both sides scoring a goal each in the first half. In the second half, it took a late goal from Bruno Coutinho to pave the blue tigers’ path to the final, as India emerged victors by the scoreline of 2-1.
India went on to face Bangladesh for the second time in the tournament, this time in the title decider. Played at the Nehru Stadium in Margao, India went on to comfortably lift their first SAFF title at home, courtesy of a goal each from Coutinho and Bhutia in the first half. The successful defence of their title marked India’s third triumph in the SAFF Cup.
2005 (Pakistan) – India regain title on Pakistan’s soil
The 2003 edition of the SAFF Championship saw Afghanistan and Bhutan join the tournament. India, however, had a rather forgetful outing in the first SAFF Cup of the century, and failed to reach the final, finishing third eventually. With Pakistan hosting the tournament in 2005, the blue tigers were looking to redeem their mistakes of 2003 by regaining the title on the soil of their biggest rivals. Grouped alongside Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, India limped to an unconvincing 2-1 win in the opening game, with young midfielder Mehtab Hossain scoring both the goals. A 3-0 win over Bhutan was followed by a 1-1 draw with Bangladesh, which saw India lose out on the top spot to the Bengal Tigers. The Blue tigers came up against a strong Maldives side in the semis, and narrowly edged past the islanders courtesy of a first half goal from NS Manju, which sealed a final encounter with Bangladesh. In the final game in Islamabad, it was Mehrajuddin Wadoo who opened the scoring for the blue tigers. Sikkimese sniper Bhaichung Bhutia sealed the victory with a goal in the 81st minute, ensuring India’s fourth SAFF Cup title victory.
2009 (Bangladesh) – Indian U-23 side lifts title in Dhaka
In the 2009 SAFF Championship held in Bangladesh, India sent an U-23 side to compete in the tournament. With the Indian team being written off as the underdogs, the youngsters started their campaign with a shaky win over Afghanistan, with Jeje Lalpekhlua scoring a late winner in Dhaka. The Blue tigers next faced Nepal, and skipper Sushil Kumar Singh’s early strike proved enough, as India qualified for the semis. A strong Maldivian opposition, however, brushed aside the young Indian side in the last group game, winning 2-0 courtesy of a goal each from Ahmed Thariq and Ibrahim Fazeel.
Despite that loss, India went on to stun hosts Bangladesh in the semis, with Sushil Singh’s 63rd minute strike the difference between the two sides. Prior to the final, the strong Maldives appeared clear favorites to run away with the title. India, however, put up an impressive defensive showing to hold Ali Ashfaq and co. for 120 minutes, and take the game into penalties. It was Arindam Bhattacharya, who then stole the show with three penalty saves, to give India its fifth SAFF title, and avenge the country’s defeat to Maldives in the 2008 final. The tournament saw the likes to Jeje, Nirmal Chetri and Jibon Singh come to the fore for the blue tigers, while Sushil Singh played a starring role throughout the campaign.
2011 (New Delhi, India) India lift second title on home soil
2009 was the second occasion India hosted the SAFF tournament, with the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi hosting all the games. India failed to beat Afghanistan in the opening game, drawing 1-1 with the Lions of Khorasan, with Sunil Chhetri scoring for the Blue tigers. Chhetri continued his good form and scored in the next two group games, as India won 5-0 against Bhutan and 3-0 against Sri Lanka, ensuring safe passage into the semis.In the semi-final against Maldives, it was Sunil Chhetri once again, who stepped up with two goals in the last 20 minutes to give India a 3-1 victory, and a place in the final. The final saw Afghanistan dominate the proceeding against the hosts. However, after a contentious penalty to the hosts in the 70th minute, Afghan custodian Hamidullah Yousufzai seemed to push the match official, and was immediately sent off from the pitch. The Afghan side fell apart as Sunil Chhetri opened the scoring from the penalty spot, and Clifford Miranda, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Sushil Kumar Singh chipped in with late goals to add salt to the Afghan wounds. The 2011 title was India’s second at home, and sixth overall. Sunil Chhetri finished the campaign with 7 goals from the 5 games, and was rightly adjudged as the Player of the Tournament.