Hosts Bangladesh ended an 11-year wait by claiming the gold medal in the South Asian Games with a resounding 4-0 victory over Afghanistan in the final on Monday. The last occasion on which the Bengal Tigers clinched the title was in Kathmandu 1999. After striving for improvement over the past decade, their efforts were rewarded by being crowned regional champions.
The immense success is not only a timely boost for the South Asians, but also a testament to their Serbian coach Zoran Djordjevic, who took over just a month prior to the tournament. “I am happy with the result and satisfied with the way the boys performed,” said the 57-year-old. “Since I took over, I have believed that Bangladesh have the potential to be a good football nation. But there is still a long way to go for us with a lot to be achieved and a lot of improvements to be made.”
Bangladesh disappointed in last year’s South Asian Federation (SAFF) Championship where they were edged out by eventual winners India in the semi-finals. Therefore the South Asian Games provided the home team with a chance for redemption.
Under Djordjevic, the hosts got off to a perfect start as they routed Nepal 3-0, before firing four unanswered goals past Bhutan in the second game to book their place in the last four. They then rounded off their group campaign with a solitary-goal win over the always-difficult Maldives to set up a semi-final clash with India.
The Indians proved a resolute test for the home side and although they largely dominated proceedings, Bangladesh had to wait until five minutes from full time to break the deadlock. Substitute forward Tahidul Alam Sobuj scoring the decisive goal for a famous win.
The hosts managed to maintain their form in the final despite facing an unpredictable Afghanistan. Midfielder Atikur Rahman Mishu headed the hosts in front after 18 minutes with striker Enamul Huq soon doubling the advantage. Abdul Baten Komol put the game beyond any doubt on 69 minutes with the in-form Sobuj sealing the win two minutes from time.
Bangladesh may have won the tournament but it was the losing finalists Afghanistan who stole the show. The enigmatic Afghanis showed they are more than capable of causing an upset, with striking prodigy Belal Arezou the most notable revelation.
Finishing runners-up in the regional competition was a significant achievement for Afghanistan. The war-torn nation owing much of their success to Arezou who almost single-handedly steered them to the final by scoring all six of the team’s goals.
The 21-year-old, who is strutting his stuff with Norwegian club Asker, opened his account by scoring the only goal against India. After claiming a brace in their 2-1 win against the defending champions Pakistan, he was again twice on target as Afghanistan ran out 2-0 winners over Sri Lanka, before grabbing the winner in the semi-final clash against Maldives. Although the lanky forward was limited to few chances against the rampant hosts, he has proved himself to be one of the region’s most promising goal-getters.
Elsewhere, India, inspired by the success which had seen them win last year’s SAFF Championship with their U-23 side, this time elected to field an U-19 team, with the region’s most populace nation focused firmly on player development. Despite this, the Indians, under Englishman Colin Toal, held Sri Lanka to a goalless draw before dispatching Pakistan 5-1 to reach the last four, where they lost to the hosts by the slightest of margins. Maldives won the third-place playoff with a 3-1 victory over Toal’s young charges.