India was once a force a reckon to be with in Asia but the growing popularity of cricket coincided with the diminishing popularity of the beautiful game. As nations around the world made rapid strides in the game, “the Sleeping giant” as India is often called, continued to slip down the ranking. At the entry of the new millennium, the game was at its lowest point in the country – sponsors were not coming forward, the national team was not performing well and the wins had dried out. Despite this, the new millennium has witnessed some memorable wins and we present here five such wins in chronological order.
India 1-0 UAE ( 8th April 2001, Banglore)
124th ranked India kicked off their 2002 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign in style when they defeated 64th ranked UAE in front of 40,000 spectators at Sree Kanteerva Stadium, Bangalore on 8th April 2001. Sukhwinder Singh coached India started off with a conventional 4-4-2 formation as RC Prakash played upfront with Baichung Bhutia. UAE were coached by Henri Michel and they came into the match with a 6-0 thrashing of Sri-Lanka. After a barren first half, India were dealt with a blow when Ancheri limped off in the 48th minute. Around the hour mark, Sukhwinder Singh made a tactical switch bringing in IM Vijayan instead of RC Prakash. India shifted to a 4-4-1-1 formation with Vjiayan playing between the midfield and Bhutia. The move added an impetus to the Indian attack which had been looking ordinary till then.
And then came the goal. In the 71st minute, Khalid Jamil found Vijayan from a throw-in who crossed the ball into the UAE penalty box. Jules Alberto, who stood at the edge of the penalty box, steered the ball into the goal with his right foot and India were ahead. Looking for an equalizer UAE went all out but India held on to the lead and completed one of the most memorable victories against a top 100 nation in recent times. The hotel where the team was staying had prepared a special cake to mark this victory and Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid had turned up to congratulate the team.
Kuwait 2-3 India ( 5th November 2004, Kuwait City)
India has not won a lot of away matches against non SAFF opponents, specially against opponents ranked above and this is what makes India ‘s 3-2 win over Kuwait in Kuwait City on 5th November 2004 special. This is the only away win in the list of five memorable matches and what makes this win all the more memorable was that India were without their inspirational skipper Baichung Bhutia in that match. Al Fahed fired Kuwait into the lead in the 35th minute and the score remained in the favor of the hosts till the halftime. Tomba Singh equalized for the Stephen Constantine coached side in the 48th minute but experienced Kuwaiti striker Bashar Abdullah put Kuwait ahead again in the 54th minute. Current Mohammedan Sporting midfielder Jerry Zirsanga equalized in the 64th minute . Just when it seemed like match was heading for a draw, Abhishek Yadav scored the winner in the 75th minute and completed a memorable comeback win for team India. Recounting the match before East Bengal s match against Kuwait SC, veteran Alvito D’Cunha, who was a part of the team said,
“I still remember playing that game against Kuwait. Although it was an international friendly we played very well and defeated a quality team in their own backyard and that too despite the absence of key players like Bhaichung (Bhutia). I remember before the game no one gave us a chance. I have a lot of friends and relatives living in Kuwait but even they were laughing at us and asking Indians play football? But after the final whistle, they were all stunned”
India 1-0 Syria (29th August 2007 , Delhi)
India lifted its first ever Nehru Cup on 29th August 2007 at Ambedkar stadium, Delhi when they defeated title favorites Syria in the final courtesy a 43rd minute goal from NP Pradeep. Nehru Cup was held in 2007 after a gap of 10 years in a bid to revive interest in the game. India and Syria qualified for the finals from the five team tournament which also featured Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh and Cambodia.India started in a 4-4-2 formation with Sunil Chhetri leading the attack alongside Baichung Bhutia. India started on the offensive and were rewarded in the 43rd minute when Chhetri headed the ball for Bhutia who laid it on for NP Pradeep. Pradeep hit a blistering left footer which crashed into the back of the net. Syria were reduced to 1o men on the stroke of the half time when Wael Ayan was red carded for a foul on Surkumar Singh.
Syria attacked relentlessly in the second half but some stout defending from Mahesh Gawli and superb goal-keeping from Subrata Paul made sure India hung on to their lead. Gawli was awarded man of the match award for keeping tournament’s top-scorer Zyad Chaabo in control. The win was quite significant as it provided Bob Houghton and his boys confidence and the team then went on to win the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 and Nehru Cup in 2009 in addition to the SAFF Championships. Also it turned Ambedkar stadium in Delhi into a fortress where large crowd came in every time the national team played.
India 4-1 Tajikistan (13th August 2008, Delhi)
Argubaly the biggest win of the Bob Houghton’s reign in Indian Football, the win over Tajikistan in 2008 AFC Challenge Cup earned India a ticket to Asia Cup after a gap of 27 years. The 2008 AFC Challenge Cup is a story in itself. India were given the right to host the event after Thailand and Chinese Taipei backed out and then the finals was moved to Ambedkar Stadium Delhi from Hyderabad due to incessant rains. Tajikistan were the favorites coming into the match after they got the better of pre-tournaments favorites North Korea in the semi-finals.
India began the match on the offensive and were rewarded in the 9th minute when Sunil Chhetri got his first goal of the night. After NP Pradeep s header from a Steven Dias corner was saved by the goalkeeper Alisher Tuychiev, Chhetri was at the right place to bury the rebound and put India ahead. Skipper Baichung Bhutia made it 2-0 in the 18th minute after he curled in a left-footer from outside the box. Delhi lad Chhetri then piled on more misery on the central Asian team when he scored India’s third in the 23rd minute. His powerful shot from 30 yards out gave Tuychiev no chance. Tajikistan were merely restricted to shots from outside the box as Indian defense was looking rocky but Tajikistan did manage to pull one back just on the stroke of the half-time courtesy Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev. Tajikistan had more opportunities in the second half but were denied by Subrata Paul. Sunil Chhetri completed his hat-trick in the 75th minute on a counter attack after receiving a pass from Baichung Bhutia and put the match beyond any doubt. Bhutia-Chhetri partnership was at its best in the tournament and for the first time since Vijayan’ s retirement, India were playing with two quality strikers. Bhutia was adjudged the Most Valuable Player for his performances in the tournament.
India 2-2 (Pen 5-4) Cameroon (2nd September 2012, New Delhi)
The match doesn’t find listing on FIFA as Cameroon sent its B team for the tournament but the match finds a mention in the list of memorable wins as it was the hat-trick of Nehru Cup for India and the first win of the Wim Koveremans’ era. India and Cameroon squared off in the final group stage match two days before the final though the match was inconsequential as both teams had already qualified for the finals. India started in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Francis Fernandes playing in the role behind the lone striker Sunil Chhetri. Team India adopted the strategy of crowding the midfield right from the start and restricted the space for dangerous wingers Ashu Tambe and Joseph Momasso.
India poked ahead in the 19th minute when vice-captain Gouramangi Singh headed home from a Clifford Miranda free-kick. Cameroon soon came back into the match and equalized 10 minutes later through their top-scorer Thierry Makoun. The goal changed the complexion of the game and The Indomitable Lions began to dominate the game with team India only restricted to counter-attacks. Nine minutes into the second half, Cameroon were rewarded for their domination as Mpondo scored from a corner courtesy a defensive error from the hosts. With time running out, Koevermans replaced Sanju Pradhan with Robin Singh as Francis shifted to the right flank. India began to look lively with two strikers upfront and earned a penalty in the 78th minute when Chhetri was brought down. Indian skipper calmly converted the penalty to take the match into the extra time. Cameroon were the dominant side in the extra time as they tried to score the winner. India on the other hand defended stoutly and relied on the counter attacks. The extra time failed to produce a winner and the match went to the penalties. Thierry Makoun missed the fifth and final penalty to send the crowd into ruptures and give India a memorable win.
India’ s 3-2 win over Vietnam in 2002 LG Cup deserves a mention but being an U-23 event it doesn’t make the cut. Along with this India’ s 4-0 win over Afghanistan in the final of 2011 SAFF Championship was also special.