Friday, September 26, 2008

Continental Giants in our backyard?

Dempo becomes the first Indian team to make it to the semi-final of the AFC Cup by beating Home United of Singapore (spectacular 4-3 away win to clinch the tie). After India's qualification for the 2011 Asia Cup, this now becomes a second cause for cheer for Indian football in a couple of months. That's more footballing success than we are used to experiencing in years and yet, the celebrations must be on hold as we are still light years away from where we should be.

The AFC Cup can be partially described as the UEFA Cup equivalent of Asia though there are some clear differences. Keeping in mind the possibilities of lop-sided encounters and the likely prospect of clubs from weaker footballing nations almost never experiencing international club football competitions (like Faroe Islands clubbs in Europe maybe), the AFC have divided the affiliates into three categories: Mature, Developing and Emerging. The top 14 Asian countries participate in the AFC Champions League and the 'Emerging nations' particpate in the AFC President's Cup. India falls in the middle-rung of fourteen (or fifteen) teams and hence our champion club competes for the AFC Cup.

While the structure ensures that Dempo are not pitted against Asian giants like Urawa Reds or the like, it is in all fairness a tough competition and Dempo's achievement should hence not be taken lightly. Clubs from Bahrain, Qatar (easily the moneyed league amongst the lot), Iraq, Singapore, Thailand etc. may not be world beaters, but most will have more claims to fame than their Indian counterparts in recent years.

This is the fifth edition of the competiton and prior to Dempo's win over Home United, no Indian club had made it past the quarter-finals. East Bengal lost to eventual champions Al-Jaish of Damascus in 2004 and last year Mahindra United lost to Lebanese club Al-Nemjeh.

The Goan outfits next opponents are another Lebanese club called Safa, who defeated Malaysian giants Perak 7-0 over two legs. If Dempo can emerge winners from this 'toughie' then they will play the winner of 2006 runners-up Al-Muharraq (Bahrain) versus Al-Nahda (Oman). The tournament has been dominated by teams from Lebanon (champions 2005-2007) and whatever happens, a club from a country that has never won the tournament before will be crowned champions this year (Al-Jaish of Damascus won it in 2004).

Dempo coach Armando Colaco has made his priorities clear by openly limiting his I-League ambitions to survival for this season with complete focus on the continental prize. It won't be easy but with players like Climax Lawrence, Clifford Miranda, Samir Naik, Chidi Edeh (5 goals so far) and eight-goal hero Ranty Martins (3rd highest scorer), it is definitely possible. We'll see. At least there's been progress and that is good.

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