Time flies. The Asian Youth Championship 1974 still seems like yesterday to me. It was the AFC U-21 Championship, and we finished joint winners with pre-tournament favourites Iran, and it all happened on the same date as today – April 30, 1974 – exactly 46 years back.
We camped in Patiala for a month prior to moving to Bangkok where it was held. But even as the tournament came nearer, there was no clarity on whether the team would travel at all – there seemed to be quite a few roadblocks. Eventually, the All India Football Federation managed to convince the Government of India, and permission was granted — with the expectation that the team would give a good account of themselves.
Ours were a talented bunch and upon arrival in Bangkok, we were put up at Hotel Sukhumvit — a five-star hotel. In fact, all the teams also put up there. Our excitement knew no bounds. Yours truly was named the captain with Prasun Banerjee being the vice-captain.
The tournament comprised of 16 teams and we were clubbed with Laos, Burma (currently Myanmar) and Hong Kong. On the surface, none in Bangkok gave us a chance. To most teams, or rather all the other teams — we were just a participant making up the numbers. They behaved as if we have gate-crashed into the championship. In such a situation, the brief from our coaches – Arun Ghosh and the late SA Salam was to: “Take one step at a time.”
Amidst all odds, we beat Laos by a solitary goal in our first group league match, with me scoring India’s winner. The victory set the tone for us and made us confident. Self-belief took over and I scored again in India’s second match as we beat Burma by an identical 1-0 margin.
Within a span of three days, our entire focus changed. Despite being mocked by other teams we were suddenly looking at the quarterfinals.
Our last group league match was against Hong Kong and it ended 2-2, with the Mohammed Yakoob scoring both the goals. We emerged group champions and set up a clash with Singapore in the quarterfinals, with Hong Kong finishing runners-up from the group.
It was quite a challenge for us to keep focus and keep away all excitement in order to not spoil our style of play in the quarterfinal. Reaching the quarters was a big achievement for us.
Against Singapore, we were hit hard as Singapore took the lead. It was a knock-out match and as always, it was a race against time to restore parity, and then look ahead. But we rose to the occasion. I equalised for India as it ended 1-1 after regulation time and also extra time. We entered the penalty shootout.
I will admit, that we were extremely tensed during the shootout. We were all barely 20 but I remember Arun Ghosh telling us not to panic. “They will also be trying extra. So we need to stick to basics. Just remember the basics. Don’t try fancy things in the tie-breaker,” he told us.
The late Prasanta Mitra, our goalkeeper, turned out to be the hero in the penalty shootout. We won 4-1 and took the next step – a step into the semis, and stood two matches away from being crowned champions.
Shabbir Ali, 1974 Asian Youth Championship
But as we looked ahead we were dumbstruck. We were to face the hosts — a strong Thailand side in the semis. They had romped into the last four, scoring 11 goals in the group stage, including a victory against Japan. They had accounted for Malaysia 2-0 in the quarters and the natives around us — be it at the hotel or at our practice sessions – everyone believed Thailand had already made it to the final.
We had expected the partisan crowd. They were loud and all pumped up. We started on a cautious note. The supply line from Devraj and Prasun kept the hosts guessing, the late Latifuddin and Harjinder and Yakoob were extremely nippy as we exchanged it amongst ourselves fast.
Not that Thailand were just defending. In fact, they dominated most of the proceedings but our defence line – Dilip Palit, Dev Anand, Amit Dasgupta and Jacob were there to soak all the pressure, as was Prasanta under the bar who came up with some spectacular saves.
Eventually, we won 2-1 – myself and Yakoob finding the back of the net. We were in the final and our joy knew no bounds.
Arun Ghosh brought us back to our senses. His words of ‘Trophy mil gaya kya?’ (have you received the winner’s trophy?) were enough to bring us back to reality. Iran were waiting for us in the final.
Iran looked super strong. They had effortlessly beaten Korea Republic (South Korea) 3-0 in the semis and looked overconfident. I remember that as we were travelling in our team bus to the ground for the final, the Iranian players were kind of already partying inside their bus which was just ahead of us.
“They feel they will win it easily. It is an insult to our country,” Salam told us. We were too near and there wasn’t any way we could lose the final.
Iran drew first blood, but soon Latifuddin equalised as regulation time ended 1-1. In the second minute of extra-time, we took the lead — I scored my fifth goal in the tournament. Iran were stunned but we were determined. They went all guns blazing and managed to pull it back some two minutes before the close. The match finished 2-2 and India were declared joint-winners with Iran.
Arun Ghosh, Salam, and team manager Dilip Ghosh’s pride knew no bounds. Prior to the kick-off of the tournament, we were dismissed by everyone, and we finished on top.
Our biggest challenge was not to let the momentum slip and in the same year — Prasanta, Prasun, Palit, Latifuddin and myself were part of the Indian Senior National squad for the Merdeka Cup.
Prasanta Mitra, Chandan Chakravarty.
CC Jacob, Joaquim Baretto, Dilip Palit, Amit Dasgupta, B Dayanand, Chinmoy Chatterjee.
AC Devraj, Prasun Banerjee (vice-captain), P Kumar, Tapan Bose.
Harjinder Singh, Shabbir Ali (Captain), Latifuddin Najam, Sisir Guha Dastidar, Mohammed Yaqoob, Gobinda Das.
COACHES: A Salam and Arun Ghosh.
(as told to Nilanjan Datta by Shabbir Ali).