BENGALURU: When it was first announced that Pakistan would travel to India for the SAFF Championships, there was talk of the rivalry between the countries bringing some much-needed spotlight to Indian football. One All India Football Federation official, however, expressed his doubts. “It’s not a rivalry. The two teams are not on the same level,” he had said then.
On Wednesday, in their SAFF Championship opener at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, the gulf between the two teams was laid bare. India won 4-0 with a hat-trick from Sunil Chhetri and a late goal from substitute Udanta Singh. That it wasn’t even a particularly impressive performance reflects how far apart these teams are. They did not have to try particularly hard. The Indians hogged 70 per cent of the ball and strung together twice as many passes as their opponents.
The match was essentially over in the first fifteen minutes as two Pakistani errors put India 2-0 up. In the tenth minute, goalkeeper Saqib Hanif passed the ball to Chhetri right in front of him. The India captain was never going to miss from there. Five minutes later, the referee spotted a handball inside the Pakistan penalty area and awarded a spot-kick that was duly converted by Chhetri. If there was ever a chance that this game would be competitive, that ended right there.
Sure, there were more goals in the game. Chhetri got another in the second half, again via a penalty, after he was brought down while on a lung-bursting run that belied his age. Substitute Udanta sprinted past a tired Pakistani defence and fired home from a one-on-one situation. But the outcome of the match was never really in doubt — Pakistan never really got into the India box with the exception of a few long passes, and finished the game with zero shots on target.
Indeed, it were the non-football incidents that provided the sizable crowd at the Kanteerava their share of entertainment. Just before the halftime whistle, India coach Igor Stimac sparked a fracas when he slapped the ball out of a Pakistani player’s hands while the latter attempted to take a throw-in. It was uncalled for — the throw itself was near the halfway line and the Pakistanis posed no threat whatsoever, but the Croatian got himself sent off for the act. Maybe there’s something about the Kanteerava that causes coaches from the Balkans to lose their heads!
Then, there were the two pitch invaders who made a mockery of whatever security measures had been put in place for such a potentially volatile match. That both intruders only aspired to hug Sunil Chhetri meant that the incident was laughed away by the crowd. One shudders to think of the diplomatic incident that would have been caused had one of them gone up to a Pakistani player instead.
The Pakistan team, having landed in Bengaluru less than twelve hours before kickoff, looked every bit the tired, jet-lagged outfit they were expected to be. This is just their fourth match after their multi-year ban from football was overturned. The players, an assortment of local players and foreigners of Pakistani origin like Otis Khan formerly of the Manchester United academy and Easah Suliman who once was England’s U19 captain, are still getting used to each other on the pitch. That showed — it was difficult to remember a spell where the visitors strung four passes together. There were times when their physicality looked a potential threat, especially their imposing centre-forward Hassan Bashir. This is a team at the very beginning of their journey and they can only get better from here.
As for India, they continued what is one of their best runs in the past two decades. This is their seventh-straight unbeaten game and six of those have been wins. Sure, much tougher opponents await in the King’s Cup in September and the Asian Cup in January. Even Nepal and Kuwait in their next two games here will be a much tougher task than what the rankings might suggest. But for now, they should celebrate this. A hat-trick for the captain, a 4-0 win in an encounter that had a lot more people than usual watching, and an emphatic start to the SAFF Championships. What’s not to celebrate?