Landmark moments in Indian football haven’t come along too often in recent years, and neither do role models and heroes. But on August 13 2008, there was double delight in store for Indian football fans.
India were facing Tajikistan in the final of the AFC Challenge Cup in front of a home crowd in New Delhi. The reward at the end of the game was not just an international trophy, but a place in the AFC Asian Cup finals, something that India hadn’t managed to achieve in 27 long years.
The AFC Challenge Cup was a back-door entry to the Asian Cup and India were never going to get a better chance to end their continental exile. Playing in front of a vociferous crowd at the Ambedkar stadium in New Delhi helped their chances, but also added pressure.
Tajikistan were no easy opponents either. India knew it well having been made to toil hard just to eke out a draw against them when the two sides met in the group stages. They had upset tournament favourites DPR Korea in the semi-finals, while India had just about scraped through against Myanmar.
All eyes were on Bhaichung Bhutia, India’s centre-forward, captain, talisman and a bit more. But hiding in his aura, a new star was on the rise. A 23-year-old Sunil Chhetri had been making waves, scoring India’s winner in the semi-final. In the final, he was to take over, not just for the day but for years to come.
He was on it right from the outset and in the ninth minute struck his first blow. It was a not a magnificent goal, but the one on which strikers pride on scoring. NP Pradeep’s header from a cross from the right was well saved by the Tajikistan goalkeeper, but Chhetri, an absolute live wire, in the box was alert to it, tapping it home from close range to give India the lead.
After the flying start, Bhutia added a second goal for India in the 18th minute with a stunning left-footed finish. However, the marvel at the goal was short-lived as Chhetri eclipsed him four minutes later.
Despite his small frame, Chhetri shrugged off a challenge from a Tajikistan defender to chest Subrata Pal’s goal kick, turn and drill a left-footed effort into the bottom corner from 25 yards out, a goal that would make any target man proud. The sliding celebration with partially raised hands followed, an iconic image in Indian football thereafter.
Chhetri had scored three international braces before that day but had never scored a hat-trick. In the second-half he went on to do just that with a goal made and scored all by himself.
Receiving the ball forty yards away from the goal on the left flank, Chhetri displayed his pace and trickery to leave the defender for dead and drive through the heart of the Tajikistan defence. There was a bit of fortune that went his way as his cut-back was partially cleared by the defender to allow him to win the ball back, go past the goalkeeper and send an easy finish into the back of the net to complete his first hat-trick in Indian colours.
It was a time when celebrating a goal was still his thing as he wheeled away doing the aeroplane celebration before being surrounded by his teammates. The image of Bhutia having his arm around Chhetri after the goal is still fresh in the memories of Indian football fans. It was perhaps the time the proverbial baton was being passed.
The Blue Tigers won the game 4-1 to reach the AFC Asian Cup finals after 27 years. The eventual campaign ended with India failing to secure a single point and losing heavily, but Chhetri shone all throughout the tournament, scoring two of India’s goals.
It took India eight more years to qualify for the Asian Cup finals again. And as if nothing had changed, Chhetri scored twice in their first game against Thailand to help India record their first win in the competition for over 50 years.
Chhetri was already a legend of Indian football by then, with the journey starting from that hat-trick against Tajikistan.
Here are the highlights from the game: