In the last encounter of its campaign in the AFC Championship 2012 qualifiers, Indian team would be meeting arch-rivals Pakistan. A heart-broken Indian team which is already out of the tournament has only pride at stake. Or may be more than that.
Its been ages now that India has struggled and narrowly managed to keep the contention of regional supremacy more of the times. But never really they broke themselves away from the shackles of mediocrity which resulted in upsets and fallback. Loosing the title to Maldives 2 years ago was one of those moments. Its been a long time since Indian football fans have wished to see themselves competing against top Asian team shoulder to shoulder, but time and again our team has failed us. Winning the SAFF Cup itself has been a struggle for Indian football team; competing against Japan, S. Korea and Uzbekistan was a far fetched dream.
But times have changed. The Youth Development Programmes (YDP) initiated by AIFF under Colm Toal for the past 3 years or so is bearing fruits, and the most savoury ones. We saw U16 team qualify for AFC U16 Championship twice in 3 years. That’s a real good sign. And the likes of performances that the team has given has surprised many including West Asian giants Bahrain who had to bear the brunt. At the start of the qualifiers, we were really feeling bad for the team being grouped along with Uzbekistan and Bahrain. Chances were slim of finishing in top 2 in the group as Uzbekistan and Bahrain were the obvious choices. More so because the build up to the competition was not too pleasant as India played 2nd fiddle to Pakistan u16 in SAFF U16 Championship. All we hoped for was a spirited performance which would see us qualify as the 3rd best team. But we finished comfortably 2nd and beating Kyrghyzstan (7-0), Tajikistan(4-1) and Bahrain (2-1) in the way.
The journey of the U19 team has been a memorable one too. Coming from a moderately successful Weifang Cup in China,
the team was in great shape. They started the campaign on a winning note by beating Turkmenistan 3-1. They also put up a great show against mighty Iran but went down 3-0. Now the calculation said, they needed a draw against Uzbekistan followed by a win against Pakistan. A draw was improbable, or that is what we thought. Uzbekistan U19 had 6 players that played 2007 FIFA u19 World Cup. And not only played, they beat USA and Czech in fashion. To everyone’s disbelief, we nearly pulled it off . What could have been a win turned out to be a loss for that one unfortunate red card.
AIFF media manager Mr. Nilanjan Dutta puts it,
A match which should have been won handsomely ends in pain for India’s U-19 team – with a 1-2 defeat. Despite all the domination, fighting spirit – that too with 10-men; despite all those one-to-one misses and one hitting the upright, the slate stayed blank — all, against a side which had six players which made it to the quarterfinals of the U-17 World Cup in Mexico.
But then, you have to accept your fate. Luck is sometimes eluding, testing you, may be asking for the best in you. Mr. Dutta wrote,
It was difficult to believe that India returned from the match without a point in their kitty. Walking back, it was overheard in the tunnel, “The Almighty never stays on our side.” But then, you ought to convert the chances that come your way.
There is still a chance that India qualifies given that the allegation against Syria of fielding over-age players is proven and India beats Pakistan handsomely. But it doesn’t really matter to us now. We can see the bright days ahead. Time has come that Indian football breaks out of the mediocrity of SAFF Competitions and stamps its authority in the mainstream of Asian football. The journey has to start with the match today. Let a comprehensive victory over Pakistan usher that new dawn. Then go to SAFF Cup with a full-strength team one last time and show them we don’t belong there anymore for we are made for better things.
The good days are not far away, hold on Indian football fans!