August 13, 2008: Sunil Chhetri’s historic hattrick against Tajikistan
The timing of India’s international friendly against Tajikistan on Wednesday couldn’t have been better as it will come one day after the fifth anniversary of their famous AFC Challenge Cup triumph.
On this date, August 13, five years ago, India thrashed Tajikistan 4-1 in the final to lift the AFC Challenge Cup trophy and qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup.
Although the whole squad showed great team spirit and character throughout the tournament, the final belonged to one man – Sunil Chhetri. The current India captain confirmed his status as the new superstar of Indian football with a sumptuous hattrick as India booked their place among Asia’s elite.
Following the appointment of Bob Houghton, who took Swedish club Malmo to the European Cup final in 1979 and had considerable experience in Asia with stints as China and Uzbekistan coach, Indian football was having a revival and that started with the Nehru Cup triumph in 2007.
Despite the home advantage though, India were by no means the favourites for the Challenge Cup as the tournament had North Korea, who were well on their way to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. India’s start in the tournament also wasn’t great as they needed a stoppage time winner to beat lower-ranked Afghanistan in the opener and an own goal to draw 1-1 with holders Tajikistan in the second game.
They were in a must-win situation against Turkmenistan in the final group match and eventually got a 2-1 victory, thanks to a brace from skipper Bhaichung Bhutia to set up a semi-final showdown with Myanmar.
All the matches were being played in Hyderabad with the majority of games at the Gachibowli Stadium. Due to incessant rains, the ground conditions were deteriorating with every game of the tournament and it was possibly at its worst condition for the semi-finals, both of which took place on the same day.
In the first semi-final, the technically superior Myanmar outfit struggled to impose their game on the muddy pitch. India adapted better and triumphed thanks to a late winner from Sunil Chhetri, who showed incredible bravery to score with a header despite having a head injury.
Bob Houghton’s boys were one win away from the Asian Cup and a couple of events after their semi-final win made them favourites for the summit clash. First, favourites North Korea were beaten by Tajikistan in the other-semi final. Much like Myanmar, North Korea were unable to adapt to the difficult conditions and Tajikistan profited by recording an ugly 1-0 victory.
The second turning point for India was the decision to move the final to New Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium as the conditions both at the Gachibowli Stadium and the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium in Hyderabad were deemed unplayable by the AFC.
Although India had reached the final without losing a game, they never had the backing of a big crowd at Hyderabad. Thus the whole squad was boosted by the prospect of playing the final at their fortress, the Ambedkar Stadium, which had a full house during the 2007 Nehru Cup final where India defeated Syria 1-0.
Due to the change in venue, the final also was postponed from a Sunday to a Wednesday. So much like the Nehru Cup final, the AFC Challenge Cup final too was on a weekday, but the national capital’s passion for the national football team was evident again as people turned out in numbers to be India’s 12th man.