India continued their dominance of the SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship as the hosts and defending champions overpowered Afghanistan 4-0 in the final at New Delhi on Sunday. The success brought a happy conclusion to what has been a disappointing year for India during which they failed to progress beyond the group stage in January's AFC Asian Cup, before being knocked out of Asian qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ at the hands of United Arab Emirates.
The final scoreline in the decider was deceptive, with Afghanistan in the hunt until the latter stages. Storming into the final for the first time, tournament surprise packages Afghanistan did well in keeping the hosts at bay but the balance was abruptly tipped when the underdogs conceded a penalty on 71 minutes.
Striking ace Sunil Chetri stepped up to the spot to put the hosts ahead, before two goals in as many minutes from midfielder Clifford Miranda and forward Jeje Lalpekhlua put the game beyond any doubt. Second-half substitute Sushil Kumar then added icing to the cake with a thunderbolt deep into the injury time.
"It is an important tournament and I am very happy that we won," said an ecstatic Chetri, who struck seven times to win the tournament Golden Boot and Most Valued Player awards as India lifted the trophy for a record sixth time. "We played well as a team and we are going in the right direction."
Chetri the new icon
The tournament saw Chetri cement his place as India's new talisman after the retirement of the iconic Baichung Bhutia, who called time on his international career last August. The No11 opened his account in the tournament opener against Afghanistan, striking the equaliser as India came from behind to draw 1-1. The 27-year-old completed his first brace during the tournament as India dismantled Bhutan 5-0 in their second outing, before again being on target in their 3-0 defeat of 1995 winners Sri Lanka.
But it was in the semi-final showdown against Maldives that Chetri fully demonstrated his predatory talents and leadership. Syed Rahim Nabi put India in front after 24 minutes but Shamweel Qasim struck on the hour-mark to draw the islanders level. With so much at stake, Chetri kept his cool to convert a penalty on 70 minutes, before sealing the hard-fought victory in added time.
Already hailed as the true heir to Bhutia by media and fans alike, Chetri, who recently had a trial with Scottish champions Rangers, paid tribute to veteran role models from whom he draws inspiration. "My goal is to help my team," he said. "Baichung Bhutia, Renedy Singh, Climax Lawrence – they all have been great ambassadors of Indian football. They are all good examples for us to learn from."
Breakthrough for Afghanistan
Chetri may have captured the most attention through his stellar display, but Afghanistan striker Balal Arezou raised quite a few eyebrows with his free-scoring form. The Norway-based forward began the tournament brightly, stunning the hosts with a fifth-minute opener only for Chetri to level to earn them a share of the spoils.
The 22-year-old went on to run riot against Bhutan, finding the net four times as his team prevailed 8-1 to produce the tournament's biggest win. The semi-final clash against Nepal proved the hardest test for them, with the two sides playing out a goalless draw after regular time. But it was again the impressive Arezou that rose to the occasion, scoring the only goal on 101 minutes to seal an unlikely final place for the Afghanis.