2011 was largely marked by disappointment for India. The world's second most populace nation failed to progress beyond the group stage in last January's AFC Asian Cup, before being eliminated by United Arab Emirates in Asian qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. However, despite these struggles, the south Asians buoyed at the year’s end after winning South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship on home soil in December.
Indeed, the regional success not only brought a happy end to a disappointing year for the Blue Tigers, but also got their new year off to a promising start, with the results seeing them climb four places up to 158 in January's FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking.
Having cruised to their sixth title in the tournament's ninth edition, coach Savio Medeira did not conceal his excitement as he reflected on a job well done. "In the five games we played, we have conceded only two goals," said the 46-year-old, who replaced Armando Colaco as India coach last October. "I think our players were very good and they were doing a great job.”
A Chetri-inspired triumph
India entered the regional showpiece desperate to prove themselves in front of their home supporters, but there had been pre-tournament concerns about the team, with newly-appointed Medeira given only a few months to prepare the side and even more worrisome was the retirement of iconic goalscorer Baichung Bhutia from international football last August.
And even though lamenting the 35-year-old's absence, the Indian faithful were soon happy to find a new talisman in Sunil Chetri, who finished the tournament as top-scorer with seven goals. Having showed a glimpse of his abilities in their Asian Cup campaign by scoring against Korea Republic and Bahrain, the 27-year-old went on to shine in the eight-nation championship.
If we qualify again [for the AFC Asian Cup], it will be a huge boost for us as we will be able to develop as a football nation.
India striker Sunil Chetri
The Mohun Bagan marksman opened his account in a 1-1 draw against Afghanistan, before netting a brace in a 5-0 thrashing of Bhutan. After adding a fourth in India’s 3-0 win over Sri Lanka, Chetri again scored a double – this time in the semi-finals as his side swept past Maldives 3-1 to set up a rematch in the final against surprise packages Afghanistan.
The final turned out to be a real test for India, with the Afghanis keeping the hosts at bay throughout the first half. However, Chetri proved the vital difference once again, opening the scoring from the spot on 71 minutes to set the home side on their way to an eventual 4-0 victory.
Optimism rings with Cup ahead
Having completed India's title defence in the SAFF Championship in his first competition in charge, there are plenty of reasons for Medeira to be optimistic ahead of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, which is set to run between 8 and 19 March in Nepal. And with a special prize on offer - guaranteed qualification for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, the motivation for India is high. But pitted against defending champions Korea DPR, 2002 winners Tajikistan and a quickly-progressing Philippine side, the Indians have their work cut out for them if they are to emulate their past feat in winning the 2008 edition under Englishman Bob Houghton.
Despite the challenge, Chetri and Co. have their sights firmly fixed on re-capturing the title in Asia's second-tier competition in order to seal their second successive progression to the continental finals. "It is an important event for Indian football," Chetri said. "We had qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup by winning this tournament in 2008. If we qualify again, it will be a huge boost for us as we will be able to develop as a football nation. For me, I am proud to represent my country and as a player, I want to raise the bar for myself."