Hosts India lifted the Nehru Cup for the first time since the inception of the tournament back in 1982, following a slender victory over Syria in the final on Wednesday at the Ambedkar Stadium, New Delhi.
India, under former China and Uzbekistan coach Bob Houghton, swept past the likes of Cambodia and Bangladesh in their opening matches and despite a 3-2 defeat by Syria, they pulled off a 3-0 win against Kyrgyzstan to book a place in the final, where Naduparambil Pappachan Pradeep scored the only goal to reverse their solitary loss in the competition.
The ground-breaking success came as a timely boost for India, who open their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying campaign with a two-legged encounter against Lebanon on 8 and 28 October.
Coach Houghton took the Syrian threat seriously even before the tournament had kicked off. "Syria are much like Lebanon and they also defeated Lebanon in June last year," said the Englishman. "I hope my boys will gain precious experience against them."
Roared on by their passionate supporters, India quickly assumed the ascendancy as Syria struggled to find their feet. Their first real chance came after nine minutes when captain Baichung Bhutia launched a counter-attack which freed Nanjangud Shivanju Manju to cross perfectly for Steve Dias, who shot over.
Having squandered a couple more chances in front of goal, the hosts took the lead before the break when Bhutia cleverly found Pradeep, who unleashed a powerful drive past Syrian No1 Musab Balhous.
There was more woe for Syria before the interval, though, as Wael Ayan received his marching orders for a foul on the stroke of half-time. With the West Asians reduced to ten men, India emerged dominant from the restart, coolly preserving their advantage for victory.
"We have prepared hard for this tournament and the boys deserved it," said an excited Houghton after the on-pitch celebrations had finished. "We have been playing very well during the competition and the players put in outstanding performances."
Besides India, the other four participating teams also gained important international exposure heading into their attempt to progress to South Africa 2010. Syria, who will play host to Afghanistan in the opening qualification fixture, proved their credentials as the highest ranked of the five on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. They looked unstoppable with four wins, including a 3-2 thriller against India, in the round robin competition en route to the final, where they were only edged out by the hosts by a single goal.
Despite losing out at the hands of the two finalists respectively, Central Asian team Kyrgyzstan could also draw inspiration from their two hard-fought wins over Cambodia and Bangladesh. Boosted by these successes, the former Soviet republic will be keen to prove they are not coming just to make up numbers when they play against the formidable Jordan in their first leg qualifying match.
Elsewhere, Cambodia's narrow 4-3 defeat by Kyrgyzstan provided them with much-needed experiences ahead of their qualifying outing against Turkmenistan, while Bangladesh, who impressed with their resilient performances throughout the 13-day tournament, will be hoping to spring a surprise against Tajikistan in a little over five weeks' time.
Fixtures and results:
India 6-0 Cambodia
Kyrgyzstan 4-3 Cambodia
Syria 2-0 Bangladesh
India 1-0 Bangladesh
Syria 4-1 Kyrgyzstan
Cambodia 1-1 Bangladesh
India 2-3 Syria
Kyrgyzstan 1-0 Bangladesh
Syria 5-1 Cambodia
India 3-0 Kyrgyzstan
India 1-0 Syria