A CURSE THAT ENDURED 54 YEARS - 19,941 days to be exact, was broken at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi today.
The day was 2nd June 1964. The place was also in the middle-east, Israel. India beat Hong Kong 3-1 in a game that ensured the 2nd place for them in the Asian Cup, their best result in the tournament ever. Since then, decades have come and gone, with generations of footballers serving the national team. None of them had been able to repeat that feat. Until tonight.
Indian head coach Stephen Constantine wasn't kidding when this reporter reminded him of that day in the pre-match presser. About India's long winless streak in the Asian Cup, all he had to say was, "That's about to change."
But how do you take down a team like Thailand? It's a team with more experience than India, better passing abilities and some superior individual players. How do you negate the prowess of a squad that's almost guaranteed to play better football than you?
The answer, as it turned out, was to take the fight elsewhere, some place where the War Elephants could not be themselves.
The compactly built Al Nahyan Stadium, with 3,250-odd onlookers making for an odd sight in the middle of Abu Dhabi's busy bus junction, saw the Blue Tigers put a spell on the War Elephants. Two thirds of the game in, Thailand looked hapless in its truest sense. The tight central midfield, the well-coordinated defence... well, they might as well have been spectators with the best seats in the house.
Three wingers in the starting line-up. A first in a coach's tenure that's been full of firsts. Constantine wasn't shy coming into the game, putting Aashique right behind Sunil at the start of the game. Within minutes, Udanta was dropping back to bridge, with the clear intention of using his speed to build up attacks from the deep. And Sunil was drifting to the right, leaving Aashique as a de facto withdrawn central attacker. The expectation was for Sunil to cover almost twice the space he usually does, just in case the Blue Tigers' fledging midfield stiches together a few good through balls.
Whether implicit or not, the requirement for a workrate twice as normal was always going to be the minimum requisite if India wanted to get a result from this game. And by result, I mean a win. With UAE and Bahrain seemingly set to give each other a run for the top spot in the group, nothing short of three points against Thailand was going to help the Blue Tigers.
The game started with a relatively high tempo, with India going on the offense early. Aashique was making his presence known while Sunil was attracting challenges, and one of those led to an early free kick. The set-piece saw Udanta almost get in position for a close range finish but Thai keeper Bootprom got hold of it just in time.
About 10 minutes into the game, Thailand were slowly regaining control. The superior passing and possession play was coming into effect and they were making probing runs up the middle of the pitch that was testing the Indian defence. ThitiPhan Puangjan's quick pass to Kraison saw the latter shoot from a scoring range but it went wide. Minutes later, Kraison almost had a free run up the wing, but Pronay Halder ran up to get the block.
Thailand captain and main striking threat Teerasil Dangda was also coming into form, but he was on constant watch by Subhashish Bose and Halder. But chances were going the War Elephants' way nonetheless. About 21 minutes in, a free kick saw Gurpreet get to the ball but fumble on the clearance, leading to a hasty clearance from Anas Edathodika. The Indian defence looked vulnerable during set-pieces; a factor that would come under the spotlight later in the half.
But before that, it was the Blue Tigers' first moment to shine. Aashique Kuruniyan's shot came off the hand of defender Theerathon Bunmathan, and India had a penalty. A stroke of luck, but it took a perfect execution from Sunil Chhetri sending Chatchai Bootprom the wrong way that brought it to fruition. 27 minutes in, India had a lead. The gallery exploded, and the Blue Tigers in their newly minter white away shirts were sprinting down to the corner flag to take part in that eruption.
India were off to a good start. The test now was to maintain consistency. Thailand were still keeping most of the ball and outrunning India in the midfield. And one such move saw Chanatip Songrasin get ahead. Halicharan Narzary had to tackle him and Thailand had a free-kick.
Theerathon Bunmathan took the free kick and Dangda shook off his marker to get a perfect header on it. Gurpreet was beaten. Thailand were level 1-1.
The rest of the half was all about Thailand. Their first touch was noticeably better than India's and they controlled the game from the midfield. Anirudh Thapa especially seemed to be having a hard time, repeatedly caught off position as the quick passes from the defence came along.
As the teams went into the locker rooms at half-time, it seemed as though Thailand had weathered the early storm and taken over the contest. India, with about 30% possession rate and looking less threatening from open play, had to do something different. If Thailand were allowed to play without pressure, they would persist. The Blue Tigers needed to change the terms of the fight; to diffuse Thailand's well-oiled supply line, they had to be intimidated and made to watch their back.
And when India came back out, that's what they did, in a move that made the fearsome Thai central midfield look like it wasn't even there. It was Udanta Singh who ran up the right, leaving the Thai defence hurrying behind, confused where to cover as Aashique Kuruniyan and Sunil Chhetri sprinted forward giving Udanta a wide target range. The cross came from Udanta, a quick flick on the run. Aashique was on the edge of the box, and instead of taking the shot, he bamboozled the Thai keeper by semi-backheeling the ball to Sunil Chhetri. The captain shot the ball into the top corner with his first touch.
A world class goal that completely humiliated Thailand's treasured tight midfield and defence. Just a couple of minutes into the game, the complexion of the game changed.
And they never recovered. Although the likes of Songrasin and Dangda showed some individual brilliance, India were now in control. And the Thai midfield was now scared to push too far forward, fearing another quick counter from Aashique, Sunil or Udanta.
And their fears became real when Udanta Singh made yet another scorching run, this time up the middle of the pitch. As he drew the attention of the defenders, Anirudh Thapa made the fastest sprint of his life to be in position for that million dollar cross that the Flash was about to unleash. And he finished with grace. The first ever international goal for the young midfielder, and after a shaky first half, what a way to redeem himself at the big stage. India were now 3-1 ahead, and practically toying with their kill.
Jeje Lalpekhlua came on replacing Aashique Kuruniyan with 15 minutes left on the clock and he didn't want to be left out of the party. Another goal made from the wing, this time Halicharan Narzary providing the assist, saw Jeje get his name on the scoresheet. It was 4-1 and the victory was sealed.
The Blue Pilgrims celebrated with the players with viking thunderclaps. The giant screen of the stadium flashed the stats, and it showed Thailand with 65% of the possession. They had done their homework and come in with the right idea. But Stephen Constantine had outsmarted them with an out-of-position withdrawn attacker and a very fast winger.
When was the last time India dominated some team in a consequential game like this? Maybe Macau... but the job they did on Thailand makes Macau look like a better team in comparison.
The three years of build up, the wins, the losses, the setbacks, the experiments... they all culminated in a 90-minute episode of vindictive vindication that shook up the whole group.
India are the group leaders with 3 points. Maybe that will change. Maybe UAE will regain their form and get back in the race to top the group. But as India prepare for their next challenge in Asian Cup, one thing is for certain.
They will go in aiming for a win once again. Just as Gurpreet had promised to do on Saturday. And it's going to be a hell of a fight.