In the context of the SAFF Championship, a final usually was a football match where 11 played 11 and then India win. Not anymore. Ranked higher than India, Afghanistan showed revenge is a dish served best in Kathmandu.
Borussia Dortmund coach Juergen Klopp had once pointed out the importance of transition in a football match, the transfer of momentum from defence to attack. At the Dashrath Stadium, Afghanistan successfully did that once in each half. It fetched them the title through opportunistic strikes from Mustafa Azadzoy and Sanjar Ahmadi.
Despite using Robin Singh as the lone striker — Koevermans’ gamble of keeping Sunil Chhetri will possibly be flayed but that could be a knee-jerk reaction — India ticked all the boxes barring beating goalie Mansur Fagiryar, who played like he was Superman in different attire. And when he was beaten in the 35th minute, Jeje Lalpekhlua’s jab was saved on the line by captain Haroon Amiri. Chhetri too came close twice.
Employing a targetman successfully needs a lot of hard work from him and the ability to win second balls. India did enough of both as they change from a long-ball game to one relying on build-ups through a sequence of passes. Singh is a work in progress but worked hard, as did the rest. His inability to lob over Fagiryar in the 60th minute though meant the deserved equaliser didn’t come.
Izumi Arata again won second balls, Mehtab Hossain and Lenny Rodrigues are settling down into a central midfield pair that could replace Climax Lawrence and NP Pradeep who ruled the zone when Bob Houghton built his team. Ditto the new central defensive pairing of Arnab Mondal and Gouramangi Singh and Lalpekhlua used as wide midfielder because Clifford Miranda is injured. And goalie Subrata Pal had his best game in the final.
With 14 of the 20 here having less than 20 caps, this team needs time. Or as Bhaichung Bhutia pointed out and Hossain agreed, longer preparatory camps to step up to the international level.
The reality of India, which does not allow dual citizenship unlike most football nations, now is that a bunch of players from the minor leagues of Europe and the USA can beat the best a country of over a billion can provide. And that’s a problem more for the federation and the clubs to solve than make this bunch the scapegoat for a campaign where they finished second-best, ironically after a game they didn’t deserve to lose.
The writer’s trip has been sponsored by world sport group.