Indian football has traversed through many decades, with many moods to it, with some of them worth forgetting while many are worth to be cherished. In this edition of ‘Throwback Thursday’, we roll-back the clock to India’s historic maiden Nehru Cup triumph, in New Delhi, back in 2007.
The Indian football team is aspiring for grand achievements right now, but back in 2007, the Blue Tigers were aiming for their first-ever Nehru Cup title. Bob Houghton’s men were up against Syria, a team ranked 39 placed above India back then, in the final at the Ambedkar Stadium, in New Delhi.
With the first edition comprising of teams like Uruguay, South Korea, erstwhile Yugoslavia and China along with hosts India, the grandeur of the Nehru Cup has diminished drastically over the years. But the 2007 edition was special, with the tournament making a comeback after 10 years, in its new home – New Delhi. As far as the opponents were concerned, Syria were the only team that had a better profile than India back then. But India’s road to the final was almost a rosy one, with them just losing to Syria, while hammering past Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Kyrgyzstan.
The ultimate test was ahead, with the Ambedkar Stadium, filled up to the brim to witness India’s first-ever win in the international tourney. Opponents – Syria, a team against whom they lost 2-3 in a nail-biter at the same venue. Nonetheless, the title was theirs to take, with the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia, young Chhetri, Mahesh Gawli, NP Pradeep, and Ajayan, all awaiting their first major breakthrough.
Now, let’s roll back a few years and measure why the night was one of the biggest nights in the history of Indian football. Following India’s golden age, during the 1950s and 1960s, where the national team was a force to reckon with in Asia, the fortunes changed for the worse in the next few decades. By the start of the 21st century, the ‘Blue Tigers’ were loitering in the bottom half of the FIFA Rankings table, while their last appearance in the AFC Asian Cup was away back in 1984. It was Bob Houghton’s appointment in 2006 that gave India a glimmer of hope. The road to the final was ‘impressive’ and ‘surprising’ at the same time, yet one last job had to be done.
The final was expected to be a cagey affair and it did live up to the hype, with the humid conditions on a 28th August evening making things all the more difficult for the players. Bob Houghton had his work cut out, with a make or break game from his point-of-view, with an axe already behind his shoulder. Syria, on the other hand, were confident to lay hands on a similar prize won each of their games in the group stages. They were ranked 112 as per the FIFA rankings back then, 39 places above India, which does prove which team took the field as favourites in the summit clash.
It was obvious that the visitors would take the offensive route from the onslaught, which did happen but the Indian defenders made sure the scores were unhurt. On the scoring side, Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri had already scored 3 and 4 goals respectively in the tournament en-route to the pinnacle clash. 20,000 people cheering for every move initiated towards the target – the evening was already magical at the capital city, with the resistance of Indians versus Syria’s high-pressing football contest taking the centre stage.
India mainly thrived on counter-attacks, while build-up play was also visible in pockets. Houghton’s men did a pretty commendable job as the game approached the final five minutes of regulation play before the half-time whistle. With the effort put in by players, undoubtedly both the teams were playing for the break, because it’s the worst time to concede a goal. To be honest, most of the players in the blue jersey had tiring legs, with them at the dusk of their careers, but were still hoping to create history and etch their names in the history of Indian football forever – to spark a resurgence in the dwindling fortunes.
It was in the 44th minute that the central defender hurled in a long ball to the final third, with him aiming at Bhaichung Bhutia, in anticipation that the legend would squeeze out something, as he has done before so many times. The ‘Sikkim Sniper’, marked by a well-built defender from the Syrian outfits, knew that a header won’t be effective. Sensing an opportunity to roll-over the ball to deputy Sunil Chhetri, the former completed a successful head. Chhetri, who played for JCT back then, was caught up in a very awkward position, with his balance dismantled while a player marking him.
Maybe he caught a glimpse of NP Pradeep running from a distance, or he was just optimistic that someone would track the ball; Chhetri laid the ball back into play. In fact, there was no one in the vicinity but lightning strikes without prior notice. NP Pradeep, taking long strides from the heart of the midfield, accelerated just in time to gauge the whims of the loose ball, with a Syrian stopper also setting eye of the same, to clear it away. But, it was the Indian who won the race, with the footballer using powerful left-foot into action, smashing the ball with all his power.