Morale-boosting victories

Morale-boosting victories

Subrata Paul

Despite those successes, the year-end ranking of 134 revealed where the country stood on the international scene but the triumphs also showed there was hope yet for the purveyors of the beautiful game.

The Houghton-Bhaichung Bhutia combine had worked out a pattern of training-cum-competition trips abroad before they won the Nehru Cup for the first time two years back. They repeated that trick this time, with a visit to Spain and matches against club opposition serving as preparatory exercise.

The tournament itself did not feature strong teams, with Syria once again emerging as the finalists. After the regulation period ended 1-1, India found their hero in goalkeeper Subrata Paul, who made three superb saves to help the hosts register a 5-4 victory.  While the wisdom of playing weak international opposition could be questioned, there was nothing amiss in the move to send the under-23 team to take part in the South Asian championships in Dhaka. The defeat to Maldives in the previous edition of the tournament still rankled and Sukhwinder Singh’s boys avenged that in style.

After an unimpressive group stage, they knocked out hosts Bangladesh in front of a raucous crowd with a much improved display and then carried that form into the final against Maldives, posting a 3-1 win. A goalkeeper was once again the hero in a penalty shoot out, with Arindam Bhattacharya doing the duty this time, helping India to clinch the trophy for the fifth time.

For Sukhwinder too, it was a sweet return to the national coaching duties, as he notched his second SAFF triumph after the 1999 triumph at Margao.
On the home front, the transfer muddle involving Bhutia and East Bengal did little to enhance the image of the sport while the I-League meanders on, failing to capture the imagination of the wider public.

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