India yesterday underlined their regional supremacy by overcoming the Maldives in the 2009 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship final.

The match at Dhaka's Bangabandhu National Stadium, which was settled by penalties, was the two sides’ third meeting in the tournament final, with India having run out 5-1 winners in 1997 and the their opponents triumphing 1-0 last year. While the Maldives might have gone in as holders, history favoured India, who have long dominated the South Asian, winning four of the tournament’s previous seven editions.

However, with India sending their U-23 side year, it was the Maldives looked the most likely winners during the group stage. Despite an opening 1-1 draw against Nepal, the islanders went on to defeat Afghanistan 3-1 before stunning India 2-0 to qualify for the last four as group winners. A 5-1 thrashing of Sri Lanka in the semi-final merely strengthened the convictions of those tipping them for the title.

India, for their part, made their way quietly and efficiently through the rounds, registering two identical 1-0 wins over Afghanistan and Nepal to ensure their passage into the last four. A third solitary-goal victory over Bangladesh then set up a Maldives rematch in the final.

The boys played well and looked solid as a team. I’m pleased with the young players and encouraged about their future.

India national team coach Bob Houghton

The tournament decider was largely dominated by the Maldives but India’s defence once again proved to be their strong point as they registered their fourth clean sheet. Then, after 120 goalless minutes, Indian goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya proved the difference in the shootout, denying Ahmed Thoriq and Nasser Mukhtar from the spot.

Jibon Singh and Denzil Franco both found the target for India, meanwhile, and after Subodh Kumar slotted home to increase India’s lead to 3-1, Ali Ashfaq missed the crucial shot, consigning the Maldives to defeat. India, therefore, were able to celebrate a hard-fought win and a fifth South Asian title.

“I am so proud of our boys who have done a great job throughout the tournament,” said India coach Sukhvinder Singh. “We failed in last year’s final, so I am particularly happy with the victory today.”

Houghton’s vision
India’s victory came on the back of some consistent performances over recent years, which have seen them twice win the Nehru Cup in 2007 and 2009 and claim the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 in between booking their place at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.

With these previous feats achieved by their senior side under Englishman Bob Houghton, their success this time holds further significance when one considers it was achieved by a youth team.

Houghton’s plan to test the nation’s young players at senior level certainly paid dividends, with a host of fresh gems unearthed. Forward Sushil Kumar Singh, 20, scored the only goal against Nepal before striking the winner against Bangladesh to seal their passage into the final. Bhattacharya, meanwhile, who was one of the team’s most consistent performers throughout, won the tournament MVP award for his outstanding display between the posts.

“The boys played well and looked solid as a team,” Houghton said after the final. “I’m pleased with the young players and encouraged about their future. They’ve had a good experience playing in the tournament.”