Remembering India’s Asian Cup 2011 campaign: Sushil’s pain was Rafi’s gain
India’s chances of getting a result at Asian Cup 2011 were over as soon as the draw placed them alongside 2010 World Cuppers Australia and South Korea and West Asian outfit Bahrain. If facing such quality opposition wasn’t enough for Bob Houghton’s side, a major blunder off the pitch got their tournament off to the worst possible start.
Manipur striker Sushil Kumar Singh, who was captain of the India U-23 side that lifted the 2009 SAFF Cup, was named in the final 23-man squad despite not making much of an impact at domestic or international level although he was always on the fringes of the first team under Bob Houghton.
The highest Indian scorer and best player of the 2010-11 I-League, Mohammed Rafi, was excluded and this decision was heavily criticised by the media, fans, club coaches, former players etc.
But just two days before India’s first match against Australia, it was known that Sushil was actually ineligible for the first two matches because of the red card that he received against North Korea in the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup.
Although the AIFF claimed that they were always aware about this, somehow coach Houghton wasn’t informed about the same and thus kept Sushil part of the national team during the Asian Cup preparations.
With India not expected to go beyond the group stage, keeping a player who is banned for the first two games wouldn’t have made any sense, hence Rafi eventually replaced Sushil in the 23-man squad on the eve of the Australia clash.
“Our management was informed that Sushil has been suspended for two games for a red card he received in the Challenge Cup. We were not aware of that and obviously that is a big blow for us. He will be replaced by Rafi,” the Englishman had stated following that development.
It was a case of justice being done if you are looking from Rafi’s side as he got to start India’s first Asian Cup game in 27 years against the highest ranked team of the continent, Australia. But for young Sushil it was a heartbreaking moment as he was denied the chance to be part of history.
However the fortunes of the two are completely different at present as Rafi is out of the national team reckoning and is currently playing for newly-formed Dodsal FC, who could play in this season’s I-League second division, while Sushil, still only 23, remains on the fringes of the current India setup under Wim Koevermans and is a regular for Shillong Lajong in the I-League.