India's tryst with irony is complete
In their four matches prior to the final, India had hardly deserved a favourable result. The Blue Tigers had managed to scrape into the semi-final and then the final on the back of insipid performances. On Wednesday night, India finally, and ever so belatedly, displayed some of their title-winning credentials but in a title-losing cause. Having drained up their quota of luck earlier in the tournament, they had none remaining in the tank.
On another day, the outcome would have been entirely different: captain Sunil Chhetri's ferocious volley would've sneaked in underneath the crossbar; Subrata Pal's long stretch would've missed the ball rather than help it over Gouramangi Singh and into the net; Jeje's shot would've rolled in instead of being cleared off the line; and perhaps, Chhetri would've finished off a routine chance rather than triggering an Afghan counter that led to their second.
For once, the team in blue were the better of the two for the majority of the game. But even then, India's dreadfully slow start made the decisive difference.
Afghanistan came storming out of the blocks, managing to zip passes even on a mediocre playing surface which resulted in incisive counter-attacks. One such attack, one of the best moves of the tournament, led to the opener when they virtually walked the ball into the net as Indian defenders embarrassingly collapsed around them. A team that allowed no space to Maldives in the previous match couldn't get near to their opponents in the early exchanges.
In the opening quarter of the game, India were slow, lethargic, bereft of ideas and by far the second best. The midfield, especially, looked all at sea. Afghanistan cleverly attacked the vast spaces in the centre. India, in response, were mainly punting it long. Even clearances fell to a red shirt more often than not. For a side that played with a lone striker, India were surprisingly outnumbered in the centre of the park.
But this is when the creditable rebuilding started. The Blue Tigers regained composure and control, possibly aided by opponents backing off to hold onto the lead. Instead of attempting aimless long balls, they kept the ball down and knocked it around. Training ground routines came off well to an extent.
For instance, Francis Fernandes and Nirmal Chhetri along with Lenny Rodrigues played neat one-twos on the right flank, drew the Afghan side towards that side of the pitch and then crossed to an unmarked Jeje on the opposite flank. It was a move India repeated a few times, nearly with goal-laden success too. It at least showcased a pattern of thought behind the football they were playing.
For nearly three quarters of the game, India were on the front foot. Mehtab Hossain and Rodrigues kept the ball ticking over, the former’s fierce drive bringing out a top save from Afghan goalkeeper Mansur Faqiryar. Chhetri and Francis combined well on the right, which is India’s default favourite flank. Jeje wasn't too shabby on the left either, taking on the opposing right-back and succeeding occasionally. Robin Singh led the line well, making runs down the channels when required and bringing others into the game. But each and every move Singh made, or the chances he missed, were naturally scrutinized: "What if this fell to Sunil Chhetri?"
Wim Koevermans, India’s Dutch coach, had made a bold decision to bench the nation’s best player (at least by reputation, if not form) following his return from suspension. Was it the right decision? It might be a debate that continues for a long, long time. But in a thirty-minute cameo, Chhetri made India look exponentially more threatening, partly because it meant India had two strikers on the pitch.
He did miss plenty of chances, but among them were ones he fashioned on his own. He should've scored at least once as the Afghanistan defence struggled to keep pace with him. He was buzzing on the pitch with a point to prove. His dwindling motivation levels and work rate had been criticized in the past, and the ignominy of not being picked for this game would certainly have hurt him.
The goal remained elusive for India. Afghanistan doubled the lead and completed their fairy tale; akin to Iraq’s success in the 2007 Asian Cup. The nation’s sporting rise after freeing itself from the clutches of Taliban is a story of great determination and willpower. Add to that a sporting subplot: they desperately wanted India as opponents in the final. They wanted to right the wrongs. Two years ago, in the final of the same competition, Afghanistan felt hard done by with a crucial penalty decision. Now, they've avenged that defeat and stand tall as the symbol of pride for the people of their country, who have welcomed them home like heroes.
Which is quite the opposite of India's current sentiments. For Indian football lovers, the tournament had been riddled with misery, embarrassment and inquests. At least, before the curtains came down, India gave its supporters some semblance of evidence that they do possess quality on the pitch.
But it came too late, and in a match when the fans – often too myopic to see the bigger picture - would likely have taken a result over the performance. The players, though, gave them a performance but not the result.
India’s tryst with irony, then, was complete.
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