Revisiting some of the memorable moments of the Nehru Cup

By Abhishek Roy, IANS

New Delhi : The Nehru Cup international football tournament begins Friday after a nearly a decade’s hiatus, and the refurbished Ambedkar Stadium here is ready for the five-nation meet.

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Launched in 1982, the tournament ushered in the modern era of Indian football in more ways than one, bringing world stars like Enzo Francescoli (Uruguay), Laszlo Kiss (Hungary), Jorge Luis Burruchaga (Argentina), Euzebiusz Smolarek (Poland), Rinat Dasayev and Alexei Mikhailichenko (both Russian) to showcase their talent on Indian soil.

Hosts India have never made it to the final of the tournament, won by the erstwhile Soviet Union on four occasions. Iraq and Hungary triumphed twice each while Poland, Uruguay, North Korea and Romania also tasted success.

It should hardly be a surprise that the international football tournament was first played at a cricket stadium. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurated the Jawaharlal Nehru Gold Cup football tournament on Feb 16, 1982, at Eden Gardens, Kolkata.

For the next 15 years, the tournament remained the showpiece of Indian football.

An annual event till 1989, the Nehru Cup was forced to become a biennial event due to paucity of funds until 1997 when it was last played in Kochi.

The tournament was a revelation for everyone connected with Indian football. Such high quality football had never been witnessed in India.

For the first time, Indian footballers had a platform to match their skills with some of the best in the world. Obviously success was hard to come by but some performances definitely stood out.

The third Nehru Cup in 1984 at Kolkata was certainly one such occasion.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) had outdone itself by lining up Argentina, Poland and Hungary for the tournament, thanks mainly to the then federation secretary Ashoke Ghosh.

Coached by Yugoslav Ciric Milovan, the Indian team was not intimidated by the opposition and held their own against teams ranked way above them.

“That was a memorable tournament,” recalls Shabbir Ali, one of the strikers of the 1984 squad. “I have scored more than 30 goals for India, but never did I enjoy more than this tournament.”

Ali had reasons to rejoice because against Poland, who fielded nearly the same squad that finished third in two consecutive FIFA World Cups, India went down 1-2 in the opener.

“We played dream football,” reminisces Biswajit Bhattacharya, who scored the goal against Poland.

“I still wonder how we did it. Actually Milovan hammered the team concept in us, something we had never experienced before.”

Leading by a goal, Poland was stunned when India equalised.

“Milovan asked me play a little withdrawn,” said Biswajit. “Me and Mona-da (Manoranjan Bhattacharya) played a wall pass and I slammed the ball in.”

Poland won the 1984 tournament but Argentina was the one that had super star quality. Except Diego Maradona, the team was the same that did duty in the 1982 World Cup in Spain but still failed to make the semi-finals here.

To make matters worse, Argentine coach Carlos Bilardo was banned from the bench after a heated exchange with the match officials.

Against India, the South Americans managed a 1-0 win.

That was the time when AIFF strived to bring the best available teams for the Nehru Cup, making the home side’s job tougher. Still there were occasions when India played way beyond expectations giving fans hope that all was not lost yet.

Bhaichung Bhutia’s excellent strike against Uzbekistan in the 1995 Nehru Cup in Kolkata remains etched in memory. Only a year earlier, Uzbekistan had won the Asian Games gold in Hiroshima and AIFF promptly roped in Uzbek coach Rustom Akhramov to train the Indian team.

Akhramov and India had a disastrous start as neighbours Thailand pumped in five goals in the opening match.

Thereafter, the Indians appeared to settle down as they held eventual champions Iraq 1-1, courtesy of a Tausif Jamal goal.

Back in the dressing room, Indians were not exactly a happy lot. Akhramov ordered Carlton Chapman, an attacking midfielder to play as a wingback and dropped I.M. Vijayan, the country’s most popular and gifted player. Trouble was definitely brewing.

Bhutia was only 18 then with no international experience. But against Uzbekistan, he scored the only goal of the match with a flying header that left everyone aghast.

Two years later, when the tournament was held in the newly built Nehru Stadium in Kochi, Vijayan proved how wrong it was for the team management to sideline him.

India reached the semi-finals before losing to champions Iraq in a penalty shoot-out, but the tournament would be remembered for Vijayan’s form. Playing before home fans in Kerala, Vijayan scored twice in four games.

In the semi-finals, India faced Iraq with 50,000 people packing the stands and another 10,000 forcing their way on to the field in violation of the FIFA norms. Fortunately, the match was incident free as India fought gallantly till the shoot-out.

For Indian football, each of the dozen Nehru Cup tournaments has been an opportunity to experience something new. So, AIFF’s decision to revive the tournament after 10 long years with help from title sponsors Oil and Natural Gas Commission is certainly a welcome move.

Years Venue Winners Runners-Up Score

1982 Calcutta Uruguay China 2-0
1983 Cochin Hungary China 2-1
1984 Calcutta Poland China 1-0
1985 Cochin Soviet Union Yugoslavia 2-1
1986 Calcutta Soviet Union China 1-0
1987 Calicut Soviet Union Bulgaria 2-0
1988 Siliguri Soviet Union Poland 2-0
1989 Margao Hungary Soviet Union 2-1
1991 Thiruvananthapuram Romania Hungary 3-1
1993 Madras North Korea Romania 2-0
1995 Calcutta Iraq Russia 1-0
1997 Kochi Iraq Uzbekistan 3-1