“Asia here we come,” read the banner at the Salt Lake Stadium on Tuesday evening before India took on Hong Kong in the Group D match of the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers. The two teams had already booked their berths in the main round after Palestine defeated Philippines 4–0 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
So around 40,000 turned up at the stadium to see whether India could finish with three wins and top the four-team group. They did not disappoint the crowd, which braved the torrential rain, and won 4-0. It was a stroll in the park.
Young and impressive central defender Anwar Ali got his first international goal as early as in the 58th second and captain Sunil Chhetri scored his fourth of the tournament at the stroke of half-time. With 84 international goals he is on a par with Ferenc Puskas. While the Hungarian legend took just 85 matches, Chhetri has already played 129. He is now the third highest active international goal scorer after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The first goal happened even before the spectators could blink. Roshan Singh’s short corner, Jeakson Singh centre into the box, Ashique Kuriniyan shot blocked by a Hong Kong defender and Anwar, at the right place at the right time, hit the bullseye with a prompt left-footer.
It’s a fairy-tale story for Anwar. He was told to hang up his boots after a medical condition but he refused to bow down. Thanks to his persistence, Anwar is the biggest takeaway from India’s qualifying campaign.
“I was sure from the first day he would justify my faith,” coach Igor Stimac said at the post-match news conference.
Jeakson was in the thick of things of the second goal too. His free-kick found India captain on the right and Chhetri leapt high and controlled the ball with his right-foot.
With minimum fuss he pushed it home past goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai. Chhetri showed amazing poise and control in dealing with Jeakson’s free-kick. The third came six minutes before regulation time. Brandon Fernades’ pass from the right and Manvir Singh’s low shot nestled into the net.
The fourth was three minutes into the injury-time and an action replay of the goal No. 3. This time Manvir was the provider. He sent in a cross from the right and substitute Ishan Pandita’s right footer hit the back of the net.
Both India and Hong Kong had qualified around noon when the final whistle blew at the MFF Stadium in Ulaanbaatar. Palestine defeated Philippines 4-0 in Group B, meaning the pressure was off the teams’ back. Palestine finished with nine points and second-placed Philippines had just four. With both Hong Kong and India at six points at that point in time they were through.
It is the first time India will be in the Asian Cup in two successive editions.
Having finished runners-up in 1964, India played in the 1984, 2011 and 2019. This time the qualification process was more expansive with the tournament becoming a 24-team affair and India were favourites to earn their place.
Still, finishing with nine points clearly is the highlight of coach Stimac’s tenure till date. Stimac, whose contract is up for renewal in September, was candid after the match.
“We had no time to talk about the contract. We didn’t even have a board (a committee of administrators runs the All India Football Federation now).
Nobody thought about how that drama could have affected the players. I’m not getting into what is right or wrong. I’m just talking about the timing. At such an important time… Is anyone normal? I don’t know why they couldn’t three more weeks before we finished this.”
Strong words when there were so many smiling faces around.
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