India rejoices at Nehru Cup treble
The Blue Tigers, under Englishman Bob Houghton, tasted their maiden success in the 2007 edition and went on to retain the title two years later. Now under the guidance of Dutchman Wim Koevermans, the home side completed their title defence in style, culminating in a win over a team ranked 109 places above them in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking.
Both teams excelled in the round-robin first phase, remaining unbeaten against the likes of Syria, Nepal and the Maldives to secure their place in the final with a game to spare. However, it was Cameroon who entered the decider as first-round winners thanks to a solitary-goal defeat of the hosts.
The rematch in the final therefore provided sweet revenge for the Indians. Defender Gouramangi Singh headed the hosts into front on 19 minutes but Thierry Mackon restored parity ten minutes later. Stephane Kingue Mpondo then gave the Cameroonians the lead shortly after restart but India captain Sunil Chhetri equalised from the spot 12 minutes from the end to force extra time, in which neither side could find the net.
The resultant shootout was nothing if not exciting, with Chhetri, Robin Singh, Denzil Franco, Mehtab Hossain and Clifford Miranda scoring for India, and the Indomitable Lions initially matching them stride for stride by scoring all of their first four penalties. However, with tension rising, Mackon struck the post to gift the hosts the triumph as the crowded Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium erupted into wild celebration.
"It was an incredible victory," proclaimed an excited Koevermans, who took over the reigns only in July. "When we were practicing penalties yesterday, the boys took eight penalties and believe it or not they missed all of them. I told the boys that this was certainly not going to happen today and they scored five out of five."
Looking to the future
Koevermans is the first Dutchman to take charge of India, a team previously used to English coaches. However, the former Groningen boss has settled in quickly to the job, successfully moulding a new-look side and remaining competitive while also installing a new free-flowing style.
Marked by their newly-adopted passing game throughout, India edged Syria 2-1 in the opener before putting three unanswered goals past an impressive Maldives. Despite being held to a goalless draw by Nepal, they rounded off their campaign with that final triumph over Cameroom, a result which left the local media dubbing the Dutchman as ‘Win Koevermans’.
India was also deeply indebted to Chhetri for this memorable success. Having assumed a talismanic role for the national team over the recent years, the 28-year-old Sporting B forward lived up to expectations by finishing as the tournament's joint top-scorer with four goals as his side clinched the championship.
Aside from his goal tally, the India skipper provided his team with the necessary leadership and inspiration as he re-adjusted to his newly-gained status as successor to the legendary Baichung Bhutia, who retired from international football last year.
"We played as a unit and I am extremely proud of my teammates,” he said after lifting the trophy. “I told the boys prior to the match that, no matter what happens, I am proud of them. Even during the match when we were 2-1 down, I told them that they had made me proud, so we kept pulling for each other."
For Koevermans, it is also hoped that the Nehru Cup will provide a springboard towards further achievements, with qualification for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup the chief aim. "We hope to play a few matches in October and November," he concluded. "The more matches we play, the better the team become. And our major target is to reach the next Asian finals."