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India defeated Tajikistan 4-1 on Wednesday evening to win the AFC Challenge Cup’08. Goal.com’s Subhankar Mondal now reflects on this huge triumph for the ‘Men in Blue’…..

A few days before the start of the AFC Challenge Cup’08 during a regional TV talk show discussing India’s chances at the competition, a football pundit raved about India reaching the semi-final at least. Hearing this, a football enthusiast said to yours truly,”India in the semi-finals!? No chance!”

Undeniably there must have been several football followers in India who fostered a similar feeling of skepticism. After all, although Indian football has progressed much, a good fraction of the Indian population somehow still clings onto the primitive idea that India in football is still prostrated.

But as the cliché has it, let football do the talking. And so it did and did in a ridiculously earth shattering fashion on Wednesday evening at Dr. Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi in the AFC Challenge Cup’08 final.

The Passion

If winning a final is a joy, then winning it convincingly is a double joy. If winning in front of a measly crowd of a couple of royal hundreds still injects satisfaction, then winning in front of a fanatically huge crowd drenches you in inspiration.

If winning a final and embracing the trophy is one thing, then winning a final, embracing the trophy and earning a direct ticket for an even bigger sporting event is quite another. If winning a football competition is one thing, then winning a football competition by presenting a balanced football is quite another.

The Matches

When Climax Lawrence scored India’s injury time winner against 185th ranked Afghanistan in Group A on the opening day of the competition, there was a sigh of relief rather than an eruption of joy. India had been mediocre at best and woeful at worst in that match as the players failed to do anything right.

In their second match, India were no better. Defending AFC Challenge Cup champions Tajikistan could have won the match and maybe on the balance of play they should have. India managed, but only just, to come from behind and draw the match, the equalizer actually being an own goal rather than a Bhaichung Bhutia header.

Indian football experts severely criticized the playing style, accusing India of playing the long ball game. Which was not exactly wrong, given that India tend(ed) to play more on the air rather than on the ground.

In their third and final group game against Turkmenistan which they needed to win to secure pole position in the group, India persuasively defeated Turkmenistan 2-1. They were not that entertaining but they had certainly improved and were very much effective, the players knowing exactly what they were required to do on the day.

The semi-final clash against Myanmar was a farce really, not so much for the (lack of) football on display as for the uninspiring Gachibowli pitch at Hyderabad. Cynics moaned while patriots reveled at the fact that the heavy weather conditions that made the ground slushy played to India’s advantage.

The Key Factors

Yet they almost willingly ignored other crucial factors that had driven this slick and talented Indian side led by a very shrewd and intelligent man (Bob Houghton). This is a very harmonious Indian national side where players play for each other, where junior players respect their seniors by calling them Bhai (as Goal.com noticed while talking to some Indian players).

Then there is the deep respect that the players have for coach Bob Houghton. The Indian players love and respect him in equal measure and all praise the way in which he understands them and keeps them happy.

But perhaps more importantly there was this urge among the players to exhibit that amidst the DPR Koreas, Tajikistans and Myanmars, India can not only hold their own but can succeed, which they eventually did.

The Final

The final in Delhi was of course a different cake altogether. While at Hyderabad players had quietly moaned the lack of spectators and the Gachibowli or Lal Bahadur Shastri pitches were hardly good enough for second tier league football matches, at the Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi the ground conditions were conducive for a good football match and the people flocked to the final in droves, soaked in patriotism and waving the Indian flag.

Which sparked the technically gifted Indian players to gel and come out of their shell. The hero of the final, Sunil Chhetri, scored three scintillating goals while Bhaichung Bhutia, soaked in blood Terry Butcher-style, scored a stupendous goal with his left foot. India played a passing game, constructed on a quick attack and an urgency to seize every possible opportunity to strike at the Tajikistan goal.

The entire team played terribly well on Wednesday. Subrata Pal was a giant between the sticks and made many a match-winning save; Surkumar Singh dominated the wing; Climax Lawrence controlled the midfield and the rest aptly complimented.

India have been saddled with a host of injuries for the AFC Challenge Cup’08 with regular first choice players such as Deepak Mandal and N Pradeep struggling to get fit for the matches. But this time the other players slotted in and the result was pinned up on the wall for everyone to observe.

New Era For Indian Football?

India celebrates Independence Day on August 15. But for the legions of Indian football lovers, the celebrations have arrived two days earlier. It came at a stadium named after the chief architect of the Indian Constitution and at a time when Indian football is going through one of its golden periods in history.

This triumph now secures India a berth in the 2011 Asian Games, a competition where India shall confront the heavyweights of Asian football.

Can the AFC Challenge Cup’08 conquest be the key the unlocks the door for India to march onto the world stage? The Indian football lovers shall certainly be hoping so.

Subhankar Mondal

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