The first-ever South Asian tournament was hosted by Pakistan.
As today marks the 27th anniversary of Indian Football Team winning the first-ever SAFF Championship which was held in Lahore, crafty midfielder Tejinder Kumar feels nostalgic. He took a walk down memory lane to recollect talks and statements which provoked the Blue Tigers, led by late VP Sathyan, to win the trophy on July 23, 1993.
“There were smiling faces all around when we landed in Pakistan. We were given a warm welcome and made to feel at home. But there was someone at the airport who smiled at us and had stated: “Bhaijaan, swagat hai. Lekin aap log har ke hi lautogey (Welcome to Pakistan. But you will return empty-handed),” Tejinder recollected. “But I reiterate we were given a grand reception. Everyone around was keen to see that we did not face any problem,” he added. “But there was tight security all around – even in the hotel. No one was allowed to go anywhere without security.”
Indian Football Team, coached by late Jiri Pesak kicked-off their campaign with a 2-0 win over Sri Lanka. IM Vijayan and Gunabir Singh sealed the tie for the Blue Tigers on July 16, 1993, before IM Vijayan helped India pip Nepal five days later. In the final fixture, India secured a crucial point against hosts Pakistan, thanks to a late equaliser from IM Vijayan, to write their names in the history book.
“Due to the wet conditions of the grounds, our match against Pakistan was delayed by 90 minutes. More than 10,000 supporters were cheering for their team but Vijayan broke their hearts. They were not happy at all,” Kumar remembered.
Besides winning the tournament, India beat Pakistan U23 side 3-1 in a friendly match on July 18. “After winning, we kicked footballs to the crowd as a friendly gesture.”
‘PEOPLE DOUBTED US, WE HAD TO RESPOND’
Tejinder had made his International debut against Finland in the Nehru Cup at the JLN Stadium in Madras (now, Chennai) on January 20, 1993, a match where Aqueel Ansari also played his first international match. The match ended in a goalless draw.
“Tejinder (Kumar), Gunabir (Singh) and me — we were not very tall. WE didn’t have that big physical presence. People judged us by this and doubted our football acumen. This, particularly, made us stronger and determined. We had to respond on the pitch,” Aqeel Ansari echoed.
Since then, Ansari and Kumar grew from strength to strength to cement their places in the National team and set a “good standard.”
They played every minute in the tournament and played a significant role in India’s win. Aqeel Ansari scored his maiden international goal against Cameroon just ten days after making his debut in the Nehru Cup 1993. Tejinder found the back of the net five times in 28 matches and both of them were lynchpins during India’s gold medal-winning campaign in SAF Games 1995 too.
‘VIJAYAN USED TO STRUGGLE TO COMMUNICATE’
While the midfielders used to deliver crosses from the wings, Vijayan was there to care of the rest. The nippy Indian Football Team striker finished the campaign with 4 goals in as many games to secure the trophy.
“Undoubtedly he (Vijayan) was our best striker. In Lahore, he worked hard and was our key man.”
However, Ansari revealed that the Kerala-based striker was not very comfortable in Hindi but understood the language of Football better than anyone.
“Vijayan-bhai was our senior and whatever you speak about him, are less. But his Hindi was not at par and sometimes he used to struggle while communicating,” Ansari smiled.
“But he knew the language of football probably more than anyone and his game-reading was outstanding. He was a person who used to reach the right place at the right time and made the job look much easier.”
Tejinder lauded coach Pesak and captain late Sathyan for keeping the unit as close as possible and the bonding resulted in vital wins.
“Our strength was a group of core players playing regularly. Besides them, we had a great leader in the Late VP (Sathyan) and coach,” Tejinder recalled.
“VP was a true leader and he was like an elder brother to all of us. Besides being our captain he was a person who we all looked up to. The team was like a family.”