They may be a negligible presence on the global stage and minnows in Asia, but once every two years, the Indian football team turns into the loudest croaking frog in a rather small pond! But in the upcoming edition of the SAFF Cup, the Blue Tigers will face the biggest threat yet to their status as the alpha males of the subcontinent.
Until the revival of the Nehru Cup as a shadow of its former prestigious self, the SAFF Cup was the only football tournament that India stood a chance of winning. With six wins in nine editions, they have dominated it like no other. Yet India’s journey in the cup so far has been the story of three men – IM Vijayan, Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri.
The SAFF Cup started off as the SAARC Gold Cup in Pakistan in 1993 and India set about dominating it immediately. The tournament then was held in a league format and India won all three of their games – a young Vijayan scored in every one – and comfortably finished top of the pile. The next edition, held in Sri Lanka in 1995, saw a change in structure and a disappointing performance from India. The favourites progressed to the final without winning a single game outright, and lost to Sri Lanka.
1997 saw the tournament travel to Nepal and India were in one of the best phases of their footballing history. They were now ranked within the top 100 in the FIFA rankings and a 26-year-old Vijayan was in the prime of his career. But the India skipper now had a strike partner to hunt with – a 20-year-old Baichung Bhutia. Vijayan scored six goals in four matches and India cruised to victory, demolishing Maldives 5-1 in the final. “It was a great experience winning a tournament like that. We dominated it from start to finish,” Vijayan remembers.
Vijayan had so far been the undisputed star of the SAFF Cup, but in 1999 it was the turn of his understudy Bhutia to step up. The championship was being hosted in India for the first time and the hosts started off on a dour note with a goalless draw against Bangladesh. But Bhutia found his goalscoring boots in the final group game against Pakistan, propelling India into the semifinal where he and Bruno Countinho scored to set up a summit clash against Bangladesh. The duo struck again in the final as India lifted their third SAFF Cup.
The Blue Tigers put up their worst ever showing in 2003, as they first lost to Pakistan in the group stages and then to hosts Bangladesh in the semifinals as they failed to make the final for the first time. The 2005 edition was a virtual replica of the one four years before. India drew with Bangladesh in the group stages, eased past Maldives in the semifinal and beat their Eastern neighbours again in the final with Bhutia once again notching up a goal.
Two years later, hosts Maldives got the better of India in the final of a tournament, which proved memorable for a solitary reason – making his SAFF Cup debut as Bhutia’s partner was a young Sunil Chhetri. The future India captain, however, was denied a chance to participate in the next edition as coach Bob Houghton decided to field an U-23 side in 2009. The move was a success as youngsters like Jeje Lalpekhlua and Nirmal Chettri broke through and regained the cup.
India hosted the tournament in 2011, and the stage was set for skipper Chhetri to shine. He did so in dominating fashion scoring in every game, notching up seven goals. India thumped Afghanistan 4-0 in the final to lift their sixth crown.
This year, the SAFF Cup travels to Nepal once again and India is no longer runaway favourites. Afghanistan is now the highest ranked team in the fray at 139, while Bangladesh and hosts Nepal come in stronger than they have in previous years. Even Pakistan, traditionally India’s whipping boys, have a player with EPL experience in Zesh Rehman. Will Koevermans’ boys maintain India’s traditional stranglehold over the SAFF Cup? The next two weeks will tell.