The Nehru Cup 2009 had a few hiccups even before the first match kicked off and more drama unfolded as the tournament progressed.
Initially, the tournament was due to be played with 6 national teams, viz., Syria, Thailand, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka and India, divided into two groups of three teams. However, with reports of Thailand only fielding an age-group team prompted the AIFF to replace them with Palestine.
But with a club team being chosen to ‘represent’ Palestine, the AIFF quickly removed them from the tournament, thus making the 2009 edition of Nehru Cup a 5 team affair with each team playing each other once in a round-robin fashion.
The tournament started off with hosts India who are also the defending champions being edged out by a solitary goal by Lebanon. The following day, Syria who were last year’s runners-up and hot favorites for this year beat Kyrgyzstan comfortably 2-0.
Following a rainy day and postponement of the match, the first upset of the tournament was when Sri Lanka beat Lebanon 4-3 and thereby throwing the competition wide open and giving the Indians a lifeline. India edged Kyrgyzstan 2-1 in their second outing and was back in the running.
With Sri Lanka being whipped 4-0 by Syria and Lebanon being held to a 1-1 stalemate by an improved Kyrgyzstan team meant that India were within a realistic chance of reaching the finals for the second time.
True to expectations, the Indian team beat the hapless Sri Lankans 3-1. The Lebanese team needing a win against Syria to reach the finals lost their way being edged out 1-0 by their West Asian neighbours.
While all kinds of calculations were in the air on various possible outcomes for the next two matches to decide the other finalist, the AIFF declared that India are through to the finals irrespective of the outcome of the next two fixtures leaving a bad taste in the mouth of the Sri Lankans. (Surprisingly, nobody bothered to flip through the competition rules till that day!!)
The Sri Lankans playing with a heavy heart were given a royal thrashing by Kyrgyzstan 4-1. In the inconsequential last match, India, playing their bench was downed by Syria 1-0.
The big match day, the final was played in front of a full house and both teams, India and Syria were deadlocked 0-0 during regulation time and thereby forcing extra time. The extra time also seemed to be running out before a ‘Bend it like Rennedy’ freekick upset the Syrian applecart. Just when the celebrations were about to break out, the Syrians equalized during injury time and the matched was forced into penalties.
As if this was not enough, more drama unfolded as, extra penalties had to be taken to decide the tie. The ‘Spiderman’ of Indian football, Subrata Pal saved three Syrian penalty kicks to make the day for India. It was beyond any doubt when Pal was awarded the ‘Man of the Final’ Award.
Mohammed Izzadeen (Sri Lanka), Abdul Fattah Al Agah (Syria) & Mohamed Al Zeno (Syria) – three goals each
Most Man of the Match Awards
Bhaichung Bhutia (India), Mohamed Al Zeno (Syria) & Anton Zemilianuhin (Kyrgyzstan) – twice
Nehru Cup XI (Formation: 3-4-3) – Editor’s pick
Goal Keeper: Subrata Pal (India)
Defenders: Ali Diab (Syria), Ali Al Saadi (Lebanon), Wael Ayan (Syria)
Midfielders: Steven Dias (India), Chathura Mathuranga (Sri Lanka), Anton Zemilianuhin (Kyrgyzstan), Hassan Maatouk (Lebanon)
Strikers: Abdul Fattah Al Agah (Syria), Bhaichung Bhutia (India), Mohamed Al Zeno (Syria)
Jason Morais writes for Footballkerala.com