New Delhi : Turbo-charged India scripted history Wednesday evening by lifting the Nehru Cup international football trophy for the first time with a 1-0 victory over a depleted Syria, N.P. Pradeep's 44th minute header settling the matter for the hosts.
India's first major international title fittingly came on a day when the country celebrated the National Sports Day and President Pratibha Patil gave away the Arjuna Awards for excellence in sports.
In a way, the victory was also a rerun of sorts of the Bollywood hit "Chak De India" in which a Shah Rukh Khan-coached Indian women's hockey team comes from behind to claim a world title.
The win made the team richer by a staggering Rs.4.77 million, the bulk of this announced even as the final whistle blew. The winner ordinarily would have gone home with $40,000 (Rs.1.63 million). This is the first time an Indian football team has raked in so much money - and could well spur a resurgence of the game in India.
India were in the attacking mode right from the word go in front of a full capacity Ambedkar Stadium. It was an exciting encounter - with tempers flaying - that kept the spectators on the edge of their seats.
Pradeep's goal came when he drove past Syrian goalie Mowsaab Blahowss after an on-pass from captain Bhaichung Bhutia. A cross from Steven Dias found Bhutia in the box and he headed on to Pradeep - who didn't waste any time to head in.
After conceding the goal, the entire Syrian team looked rattled but didn't give up till the last minute. Ultimately they had to bow to the grit and determination of the Indian team.
Syria's Wael Ayan was red carded in the 44th minute after he deliberately kicked Surkumar Singh.
At the start of the tournament, Bhutia had said there was realistic chance for India to win - and he led from the front to prove this right.
"This is the biggest win of my career. We need to keep on playing well and this is just the beginning. This is a good boost for the World Cup qualifiers against Lebanon," Bhutia said at the post match press conference.
"We don't play many international tournaments in the country and this win is really amazing given the fact that the last time we played the Nehru Cup was in 1997," he said.
India's best performance in the Nehru Cup so far was a semi-final finish in the last edition in Kochi in 1997. The last time India reached the final of a major international tournament was in 2002 when they beat Vietnam to lift the LG Cup. In 2005, India beat Bangladesh to win the SAFF Cup in Pakistan.
"We played positive throughout the tournament. We attacked as a team and defended as a team," said Bhutia.
On Wednesday, India looked like a determined lot as they defeated tournament favourites Syria, who are ranked 112 by FIFA against 151 for the hosts.
It was a closely fought contest and India took sweet revenge for their 2-3 loss to Syria in the league stage.
India coach Bob Houghton was elated by his team's performance and said that the momentum must be maintained.
"The boys played well all through the tournament. The health of a nation's football is identified by the success of its national team. I think if we keep this momentum, we can really do well in the future," Houghton maintained.
"We will be playing Lebanon in the World Cup qualifiers in October and then will play the SAFF Cup and AFC Challenge Cup next year. So we will be playing more international tournaments in the coming days and hopefully we should keep the momentum," Houghton added.
The coach also heaped praise on the Indian captain, saying: "Bhaichung has looked sharper in the tournament".
The score line could have been much better but Bhutia and his boys squandered several chances.
On one occasion, Bhutia had an open net but shot wide. Even so, the Indian captain led from the front as he has done all through the tournament - but didn't get much support from Sunil Chettri.
Chettri seemed rusty and was ultimately replaced by Tarif Ahmed in the dying minutes of the game. Mahesh Gawli, adjudged as the Man of the Match, and N.S. Manju manned the defence extremely well.
India: Subrata Paul (goalkeeper), Mahesh Gawli, N.S. Manju, Gourmangi Singh, Surkumar Singh, Steven Dias, Ajayan Nair (Clifford Miranda, 81), Climax Lawrence, N.P. Pradeep, Sunil Chettri (Tarif Ahmed, 90+), Bhaichung Bhutia (Abhishek Yadav, 90+).
Syria: Mowsaab Blahwoss (goalkeeper), Ali Dyeb, Mahmoud Al Amena, Maher Al Sayad, Khaled Albaba, Mootassem Alaya (Ali Arifaai, 84), Aatef Jenyat, Wael Ayan, Zeen Alabeden Fandi, Zyad Chaabo (Anas Al Asaf, 89), Feras Esmaeel.
Referee: Sikhrakar Surendra (Nepal).