The jubilation of football players who have just won a cup final is similar the world over, but neither Bayern Munich, who won this year’s European Champions League, or Spain, who won the last World Cup, celebrated as the Afghan national team did in Nepal last night. They danced wildly, threw their manager in the air and then prayed together in the centre circle of the pitch. The Lions of Khorasan had beaten India – aka the Blue Tigers – to claim the South Asian Football Federation Cup. It was Afghanistan’s first international soccer triumph. Reporting on the match for AAN from his native Germany was Jan Ruttig, football and Afghanistan fan. (Find our second dispatch on the celebrations back home in Afghanistan here.)
It took the author, who is based in Europe, almost twenty minutes to find a decent live stream of the match and even then, it was almost impossible to identify the numbers on the players’ jerseys. Far worse though, he missed the Lion’s first goal, in the 9th minute. Regardless, as an enthusiastic football fan (of the great, but mostly unknown 1. FC Union Berlin), the author is used to quickly swallowing his anger and concentrating on both the game and the ground.
It was clear that neither the dry turf in the Dashrath Rangasala Stadium in Kathmandu, Nepal, nor the FIFA ranking of both teams (Afghanistan is number 139, India 145 – out of 207) would be allowing the high-class, elegant, acrobatic style of tiki-taka play à la Barcelona. But, in these times of modern and often sterile football arenas, this match, between two relatively minor teams, in an old Nepali stadium, playing under floodlights and with the fans shouting and screaming, provided an old-school feeling that many European football fans have been missing in their own countries.
The tactics of both teams were obvious. The Blue Tigers, defending their title as South Asian Champions, coached by former one-time Dutch international, Wim Koevermans, tried to keep the Afghan side busy with 60-70 per cent possession and surprising the Afghan defensive line with fast passes to their strikers. The Afghans, managed by Mohammad Kargar, focused instead on a solid defence and quick counter-attacks, carried out by fast wingers and centre forwards.
This is how the initial 1-0 goal occurred: a sprint on the right wing and a pass in the middle of the box to Balal Arezou, who, undisturbed, controlled the ball and pushed it past two Indian fullbacks to Mustafa Azadzoy who then easily scored from just two or three metres.
After Afghanistan gained the lead, India became more and more aggressive in their attacks, putting crosses into the box and distant shots on goal. The Afghan side should be extremely grateful to their strong keeper, Mansur Faqiryar. He had been key to earlier wins in the championship and was called on to show his skills several times in the first half, alone.
Neither manager substituted during the break. In the second half, the game of the Afghan team changed: they seemed to have left their confidence in the dressing room and were pushed back into their own half due to strong Indian attacks. Despite India’s 90 per cent possession of the ball, they were not able to create any opportunities to challenge Faqiryar. The number of fouls in midfield increased and Afghanistan’s only relief came through free-kicks in the opponent‘s half.
After Indian star striker Sunil Chhetri, who had been on the bench until the 60th minute, came onto the pitch, however, the Tigers’ attacks became even stronger and more numerous. Fortunately for the Afghan team, Chhetri, having gone round three defenders in the 62nd minute and getting near the goal, failed to put the ball in the back of the net.
Then two minutes later, in a direct countermove, Afghan striker, Sandjar Ahmadi, taught Chhetri a lesson in effectiveness in front of goal; after what looked to be a lethal shot by Arezou was saved by the Indian keeper, Ahmandi lifted the rebound nicely over the Indian keeper. It was the second goal of the match.
Nevertheless, India did not give up. Chhetri once more hit the crossbar in the 64th minute, while the Afghan players started to play for time, lying down on the turf after every little foul. They were successful in bothering the Indian players, who, minute by minute, lost their belief that the game could still be turned around. Even the Indian fans lost confidence and started leaving the stadium.
In the 82nd minute, the Indian goalkeeper completely lost his concentration when he walked out of the box with the ball in his hands, causing a needless free-kick for the Afghans from a promising position. Unfortunately, Hashmatullah’s shot for a possible 3-0 victory not only went wide of the nine(!)-man wall, but of the goal, too.
But the game had already been decided and Chhetri only had the chance for a consolation goal with a header into a miserably empty net. He missed. The Indian team also failed to use the four minutes of stoppage time to change the final result.
Not only is the jubilation of winners the same worldwide, but also the sad faces of the losers, standing despondently around the pitch once the final whistle has gone. But the Afghan team had beaten India fairly, thanks to their cleverness and coolness in front of goal and the strength of their indefatigable keeper. Along with the few dozen Afghan fans, including a handful of women, who attended the match, the team rightly celebrated in style. They deserved their win. They had represented themselves and their nation with skill, becoming the nation’s first ever international soccer champions.
Jan Ruttig is a student at Heidelberg University, Germany.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020