NEW DELHI: A packed house cheered India to a rare international football title here on Wednesday night with the home team taming Syria by a lone first-half goal in the ONGC Nehru Cup tournament.
Baichung Bhutia did not score, but paved the way for a priceless strike by N. P. Pradeep in the 44th minute. It should, however, be recorded that India owed the triumph immensely to an impeccable performance under the bar by Subrata Paul. His anticipation in cutting off Syria’s aerial forays was the most striking feature of the contest.
The Indians matched the Syrians in every aspect of the game — speed, control, aggression and tactics. Pace was furious but the match suffered in quality once the Syrians adopted needless rough tactics, especially to unsettle Bhutia and Sunil Chettri.
The ploy did not work for long and Syria paid dearly for its misadventures in the first half. It first conceded a goal and then lost a key player to a lethal lapse in concentration.
Even as tempers rose, the game threatened to go out of control. Referee Sikhrakar Surendra opted to ignore some fouls and rapidly the game de-generated with the Syrian players going for the man and not the ball.
Despite the hard work by striker Maher Al Sayed and some outstanding defending by Ali Dyeb, Syria went down to an opposition that played as a team.
The visiting side played the second half with ten men after Wael Ayan felled Surkumar Singh in a moment of madness. It could have been worse had he gone ahead with his act of hurling the soft drink bottle at Bhutia.
The Syrians allowed the occasion to rattle their composure and the team produced a rare sight of their own players exchanging words among themselves. The Indian defence was superbly marshalled by ‘man of the match’ Mahesh Gawli with unflappable support from N. S. Manju and Gouramangi Singh. The Syrians were constantly harassed by Surkumar Singh too and it made the task easy for the midfield where N. P. Pradeep and Climax Lawrence could afford to frequently assist the strikers, leaving Ajayan Nair and Stevan Dias to plug the loopholes, if any.
The credit of coming close to scoring first went to India in the tenth minute but Chettri shot out in front of an open goal. India did well to attack relentlessly even though Syria did manage some dangerous counter-attacks. It, however, failed to get past the impregnable Paul.
The goal by Pradeep was just the tonic Indian football needed. Chettri initiated the move, found Bhutia, who could not finish the job but an overlapping Pradeep slotted the loose ball in with a flourish that epitomized the team’s regal march to the title.
Syria, ranked 39 places above India,had one last chance in injury time but Jenyat shot wide. India should have been up by another goal but Dias made a hash of a spectacular square pass by Bhutia. In the end, the misses did not count.
The win fetched India $40,000, the entire money to be distributed among the players. Oil and Natural Gas Commission contributed a similar amount.
Pat for Indians
Loka Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee on Wednesday congratulated the team. Mr. Chatterjee spoke to Bhutia and conveyed his congratulations.