10 years since India’s historic 2011 AFC Asian Cup campaign - When the Blue Tigers took on Asia’s might

India played Australia, South Korea and Bahrain in 2011

By Samrat Chakraborty ·

10th January is a special date for Indian football enthusiasts. It was on this day 10 years ago that the Indian football team finally made their much-anticipated return to the AFC Asian Cup - after a hiatus of 27 years!

India were a force to be reckoned with on the continent in the 1950s and 1960s when they had players like PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, Jarnail Singh, Peter Thangaraj and more. 

But Indian football saw a decline in the 80s and 90s. The last Asian Cup that India qualified before 2011 was in 1984. 

All the more reason why the 2011 Asian Cup will always be special for the fans in India despite the Blue Tigers losing all three games in their group and crashing out without a point. 

It must be considered that India were paired in a very strong group that had Australia, South Korea and Bahrain. For seasoned Indian fans, it was heartening to see the country compete against the heavyweights of Asian football on the continent’s biggest stage. 

The fact that several big-name players featured against India in these matches also made it a special occasion. 

Let’s take a look at how India fared in the 2011 Asian Cup.

India team after winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup

Qualification by winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup

The AFC Challenge Cup was a tournament organised by the AFC to raise the level of football in emerging footballing countries like India. The winners of the tournaments were also handed an automatic spot in the Asian Cup.

India made full use of the 2008 edition which was hosted by them to qualify for their first Asian Cup in 27 years.

The Blue Tigers defeated the likes of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Myanmar to set up a final with Tajikistan. A Sunil Chhetri hat-trick and a goal from Bhaichung Bhutia in the summit clash helped India register a memorable win amid euphoric scenes at the Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi.

The team

The Indian side that played the 2011 Asian Cup was coached by Englishman Bob Houghton who took Swedish club Malmö FF to the 1979 European Cup Final.

The team was led by star striker Bhaichung Bhutia who was in the twilight of his career. In fact, the Asian Cup was his last competitive tournament for India. There were experienced campaigners like Mahesh Gawli, Abhishek Yadav (who is now the All India Football Federation’s Dy. General Secretary) and Climax Lawrence.

Players who were in contention for a spot in the Asian Cup were taken under the fold of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and they were not allowed to represent their respective clubs until the end of the tournament.

Team India travelled to Portugal, Thailand, UAE and a few more destinations and underwent long training camps coupled with friendlies to give themselves the best possible chance in Qatar where the tournament was held.

Full squad:

Goalkeepers: Subrata Pal (Pune FC), Subhasish Roy Choudhury (Dempo SC), Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (AIFF XI)

Defenders: Anwar Ali (Dempo SC), Mahesh Gawli (Dempo SC), Deepak Mondal (Mohun Bagan AC), NS Manju (Mohun Bagan AC), Rakesh Masih (Mohun Bagan AC),Syed Rahim Nabi (East Bengal Club), Gouramangi Singh (Churchill Brothers SC), Govin Singh (East Bengal Club), Surkumar Singh (Mohun Bagan AC)

Midfielders: Steven Dias (Churchill Brothers SC), Climax Lawrence (Dempo SC), Clifford Miranda (Dempo SC), NP Pradeep (Mahindra United), Baldeep Singh Jr (JCT), Renedy Singh (East Bengal Club), Mehrajuddin Wadoo (East Bengal Club)

Forwards: Baichung Bhutia (Captain – East Bengal Club), Sunil Chhetri (Kansas City Wizards), Sushil Kumar Singh (East Bengal Club), Abhishek Yadav (Mumbai FC)

Climax Lawrence of India against Australian team in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup

First match: India 0-4 Australia - 10 Jan 2011

The Blue Tigers were the lowest-ranked side in the competition and had their task cut out against a star-studded Australia in their very first game of Group C. Not surprisingly, India went down 4-0 at the Al Sadd Stadium. Although the 13000 fans at the stadium were cheering for India, they couldn’t carve open the experienced Australian defence led by Lucas Neill and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. 

It was star players in former Everton forward Tim Cahill, former Liverpool winger Harry Kewell, and former Blackburn Rovers midfielder Brett Emerton who scored the goals for Australia. Cahill got himself a brace in the game. 

However, Indian custodian Subrata Paul did make a name for himself with some flying saves and thereby, earning the nickname ‘Spiderman’.

Sunil Chhetri of India against Bahrain in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup

Match 2: India 2-5 Bahrain - 14 Jan 2011

Four days later, India played their second group game against Bahrain. This was probably India's best performance in the 2011 edition although they did concede five. 

Bahrain took an early lead through Faouzi Aaish after being awarded a penalty. However, India did score in the very next minute through Gouramangi Singh. Renedy Singh’s flag-kick was headed towards Gouramangi by Abhishek Yadav and the centre-back’s header found the back of the net.

Thereafter, it was the Ismael Abdulatif show for Bahrain as he scored a hat-trick within 19 minutes. But India got a goal back in the 52nd minute. Renedy’s shot came off the crossbar before Yadav once again struck the woodwork. The ball fell kindly for Chhetri to head home from close range to make it 4-2. But Abdulatif scored his fourth of the evening but India did have their share of chances as well. 

Lawrence, Chhetri and Yadav came close to adding to the scoreline and the game ended 5-2. India had a total of 12 shots in the game with five on target.

Match 3: India 1-4 South Korea - 18 Jan 2011

The final game against South Korea was a rather forgettable affair. India went down 2-0 within 10 minutes. However, Chhetri converted a penalty to reduce the deficit but thereafter, it was a case of one-way traffic. 

The South Koreans threw more and more players in attack and scored two more goals in the second half to make it 4-1. 

However, the match will be remembered for two milestone moments. It marked the final international appearance of one of India’s greatest footballers in Bhaichung who came on as a 78th-minute substitute.

More interestingly, the game will be memorable for Tottenham Hotspur’s star forward Son Heung-min, who scored his first-ever international goal when he found the net in the 81st minute to make it 4-1. 

If you go by the score lines, it wasn’t a great competition for India. However, in bits and pieces, India did show that they could compete at a level they once belonged to. It was certainly a proud moment for India that they were back to competing against Asia’s best.