The COVID crisis in the country and the extravaganza of the Indian Premier League has ensured that Indian football club FC Goa’s AFC Champions League 2021 campaign has been well and truly been deprived of the spotlight. Having played their quota of 6 group stage matches, FC Goa managed to claim 3 draws and face defeat as many numbers of times, which meant that they ended 3rd in their group, in the process failing to achieve qualification for the following round.
Indian Football Club FC Goa in AFC Champions League 2021
The fact that the table-toppers of the Indian Super League 2019/20 faced a group stage exit does not tell the whole story. FC Goa became the first ever Indian team to secure a point in the AFC Champions League after battling it out against former French World Cup winner Laurent Blanc’s side, Qatar’s Al Rayyan. Despite Al Rayyan seeming more dominant right from kick-off at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, the Gaurs, coached by Juan Ferrando, kept a clean sheet, with goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem proving to be a standout performer.
FC Goa played out two more stalemates, against Al Wahda and Al Rayyan (the return leg) to go with their three losses. The Gaurs could have had at least 5 more points, for they took the lead on two occasions, but were unable to hold on to it.
The first instance was against Iran’s Persepolis F.C. on the 20th of April, where an Edu Bedia header from a Brandon Fernandes free kick 14 minutes in got his side ahead, only for them to concede a penalty, and subsequently the equaliser four minutes later. Some careless defending ensured that they went behind in the 24th minute, as Jalal Hossaini, unmarked, leapt up and headed the Iran-based club back in front from a cross from Mehdi Torabi.
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If the game against Persepolis wasn’t agonising enough, FC Goa’s return leg against Al Rayyan six days later turned out to be a gut-wrenching affair. With both sides competing in a dead rubber, having been mathematically eliminated already, Goa had the lead inside 3 minutes, thanks to Jorge Ortiz’s untidy yet effective finish. They were a minute of regulation time away from securing the first ever win by an Indian club in the competition, when goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh, who had done exceptionally well to keep his side in the game until then, was unable to latch on to an attempted pass from the right, and Ali Ferydoon levelled for Al Rayyan.
For the Indian football fraternity, the biggest takeaway out of this campaign was Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem. The shot-stopper from Manipur made 26 saves in the 5 appearances that he made, the most in the West Zone group league stage.
“Dheeraj Singh certainly made a name for himself on his continental debut, pulling off a tournament-leading 26 saves in just five games, among them a number of memorable efforts that earned high praise from impressed observers,” the AFC said on its website about Dheeraj, who rose to fame following the U17 World Cup in 2017.
5 memorable performances from Indian football teams in Asian competitions
Inspired by FC Goa’s campaign, we look at 5 memorable performances from Indian football teams in Asian competitions.
#1 Mysore State, Asian Champion Club Tournament 1969 Semi-Finalists
By virtue of lifting the Santosh Trophy earlier that year, defeating West Bengal in the replay of the final by a goal to nil after the first leg ended in a goalless draw, the Karnataka football team, known as Mysore State back then, sealed a spot in the premier football competition of Asia, then known as the Asian Champion Club Tournament. While the inaugural edition of the tournament, held two years ago, had a straight knockout format, group stages were added to it from the following edition. A total of 10 teams competed over 24 matches in the 16-day affair in Thailand.
Mysore State, allotted in Group A alongside Yangzee, Bangkok Bank, Vietnam Police and Manila Lions, got off to the worst possible start to the campaign, conceding 5 against South Korea-based Yangzee FC. A 1-1 draw against Bangkok Bank somewhat redeemed their morale, which they used to the best effect by defeating both Vietnam Police and Manila Lions by 2 goals to 1. The two wins and the draw helped them earn a total of 5 points, which ensured their promotion to the semi-finals.
A crushing 6-1 defeat to Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv in the 1st semi-final diminished hopes of Asian glory for Mysore. Subsequently, the 4-time Santosh Trophy champions gave away the bronze spot to Japanese club Togo Kogyo, losing 2 goals to nil. To date, Mysore State’s 1969 Asian Champion Club Tournament campaign remains the most successful for an Indian football side in Asia’s premier football competition.
#2 Dempo Sports Club, AFC Cup 2008 Semi-Finalists
Once regarded as one of India’s footballing giants, Dempo Sports Club earned a ticket to the AFC Cup in 2008 after finishing on top of the National League table (the then top competition in Indian football) the year before. They set off their campaign on home soil with a resounding 3-1 win over Lebanese opponents Al-Ansar, thanks to a brace from Ranti Martins and a goal from fellow forward Chidi Edeh. An unsuccessful visit to Oman to play Sur Sports Club, followed by a 4-0 defeat against Bahrain’s Al-Muharraq meant that they had to pull off something special to go through, and so they did.
A second Ranti Martins brace at the Bahrain National Stadium, followed by a 1-1 draw at Beirut meant that they needed a win in their final group game, against Sur Sports Club to safely advance to the knockouts. They made light work of the job, smashing 5 past the Omani club’s defence and conceding only 2 in return late in the game. Martins struck his third brace of the tournament, Chidi scored two as well, and Climax Lawrence wrapped things up with a goal of his own.
Dempo finished 2nd in the group, and 3rd in the best group runners-up chart, 3 points clear of Jordanian clubs Al-Wahdat and Shabab Al-Ordon. They faced group D winners Lion City Sailors FC (Home United) of Singapore in the Quarter-Final over two legs, which took place at the start of the following football season. Mboyo Iyomi, brought in from Churchill Brothers to replace Chidi Edeh, who had departed for Mahindra United, equalized late in the day to keep his side in the tie going to the second leg.
A 7-goal thriller ensured that Dempo went through to the semis. In a match that can be described as a classic in Indian football folklore, Iyomi opened the scoring for Dempo at the Jalan Besar Stadium a minute into the game. Roberto Mendes thumped the Goanese side back in the lead in the 23rd minute after Peres De Oliviera’s equalised 10 minutes ago. Indra Sahdhan then scored twice in quick time to get the hosts in front for the first time in the game, only for Climax Lawrence to equalize with a captain’s goal right at the cusp of half-time.
With his side already ahead on away goals, Mendes scored his second and Dempo’s 4th in the dying minutes of the game to kill the tie off. Their fantastic run in the tournament came to an end when they faced off against Safa Sporting Club from Beirut in the semis. Unable to score away from home and a goal behind from the first leg, Dempo’s spirits were crushed after they went 2-nil down in the second leg at home, as Mohammad Kassas struck twice for the Wata El-Museitbeh-based team. Although Iyomi provided a consolation goal earlier in the second half, Safa Sporting piled on the misery with two more late strikes from super-sub Hussain Tahan.
#3 East Bengal, AFC Cup 2013 Semi-Finalists
The Red and Gold Brigade made doubly sure of their qualification in the tournament, their 7th appearance, by winning the Federation Cup the previous year to go along with the I-League runners-up medal. Having topped group H with a total of 14 points in 6 games, they cruised to the last 16 stages. Chidi Edeh, Lalrindika Ralte and Penn Orji scored three goals each in the group stage, with Edeh going on to be the top-scorer for his side in the tournament with 6 goals.
East Bengal put 5 past Burmese side Yangon United’s defence in the one-off round of 16 encounter, which was played between the group winners and group runners-up from the same zone. While Orji opened the scoring in the 2nd minute in front of a moderate Salt Lake Stadium crowd in Kolkata, Chidi scored a striker’s hat-trick with some tidy finishing to send the Red & Gold Brigade supporters into a frenzy. Mehtab Hossain was the third goal-scorer for the hosts, sending them 3 up right at the start of the second half. Cesar Augusto’s goal late in the day provided some consolation for the visitors.
East Bengal travelled to Indonesia with a 1-0 lead from the first leg against Semen Padang, thanks to a clinical hit by substitute Ryuji Sueoka from outside the box in the 70th minute. An ordinary bit of distribution from keeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was pouched on to and capitalized by Edward Wilson, giving the then Indonesian Premier League champions the lead on the day. Semen Padang was dominant for the best part of the game, but an immaculate cross from Baljit Sahni towards the far post was headed into the back of the net by James Moga in the 78th minute, which sealed a semi-finals spot for the 100-year-old club from Bengal.
Despite conceding 4 pedestrian goals against Al-Kuwait in the first leg of the semis, East Bengal still had the belief of being in the tie going into the return fixture, for they had two vital away goals, one headed in by Uga Okpara from a corner in the 65th minute, the other being a splendid finish from Lalrindika Ralte in the 87th. East Bengal was well and truly in the hunt in the return fixture, before Al-Kuwait struck twice in two minutes, right on the cusp of halftime, and the contest was over.
An own-goal from Abhishek Das in the dying stages summed things up for the hosts, as they crashed out of the tournament, unable to break the barrier of an Indian team being able to play the summit clash in an Asian football tournament, a feat that was achieved 3 years later.
#4 Bengaluru FC, AFC Cup 2016 Runners-Up
The AFC Cup Final in 2016 had a few firsts. Finalists Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya and Bengaluru FC made their first AFC Cup Final appearance, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Translates to Air Force Athletic Club in English) did so in their first ever AFC Cup appearance, and The Blues reached heights no other Indian football team had scaled before, becoming the first ever football team from the country to play in the final of an Asian football tournament.
Both Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan made it to the last 16, with Mohun Bagan topping their group. While the Mariners were unable to make further progress, agonizingly conceding the winning goal against Singapore-based Tampines Rovers FC with 4 minutes left to extra-time, Bengaluru FC, despite going behind to Hong Kong club Kitchee in the 7th minute, got themselves back in front thanks to a brace from skipper and talisman Sunil Chhetri. Daniel Lalhlimpuia added a third in the 51st minute to reclaim the lead for the Blues after Jordi Tarres levelled for the hosts.
A defensive lapse from Tampines Rovers in the quarter-final was capitalized upon by the finalists, as CK Vineeth netted the only goal of the tie. A week after the tie against the Rovers, Eugeneson Lyngdoh gave The Blues a goal worth of gold, both in terms of quality and context, in the first leg of the semi-final against Johor Darul Ta’zim at Malaysia. He defied the lack of space and fired in a shot from over 20 yards into the bottom right corner, four minutes after the hosts took the lead courtesy of a header from Jorge Diaz in the second half.
Safiq Rahim nullified the away goal factor for The Blues 11 minutes into the second leg by heading in the rebound off Amrinder Singh’s gloves as the keeper only managed a weak punch against a shot from Safee Sali. It took a brace from talisman Sunil Chhetri to push the hosts back in front, the first one headed into the bottom left corner from a Eugeneson Lyngdoh corner kick, and the second one a world class strike from outside the box after making space for himself by skipping past a couple of JDT players after controlling the pass. A header from Juan Antonio capped off a historic night for Bengaluru FC and for Indian football, as The Blues sealed a first ever finals spot in an AFC competition.
Due to the fact that Iraqi teams were not allowed to host their home matches in their country, the final took place at the Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium in Qatar. Amidst vociferous support despite playing at a neutral venue, Air Force Club created a bulk of chances before a clever piece of play saw them take the lead in the 70th minute.
Amjed Radhi, pretending to pass the ball to Hammadi Ahmed who was standing in an offside position, dribbled past the Bengaluru defence into the box as Ahmed merely stepped aside. He then tapped the ball back to Ahmed past keeper Lalthuamawia Ralte, who was in goal in place of the suspended Amrinder Singh, and Ahmed, by then well and truly onside, completed the formalities. Bengaluru fought and fought till the end, throwing everything into the game in the last 20 minutes, but it was not meant to be. And so, the wait for an Indian football team to achieve Asian glory continues to this date.
#5 Bengaluru FC, AFC Cup 2017 Zonal playoff finalists
Attaining a group stage spot by lifting the I-League Trophy in 2015/16, Bengaluru FC were keen to go one better than last time, having been slotted alongside Mohun Bagan, Maldives’ Maziya and Bangladesh’s Abahani Limited. They began their campaign with a 2-1 victory against national rivals Mohun Bagan, thanks to goals from Sandesh Jhingan, on loan from Kerala Blasters, and Sunil Chhetri.
A stoppage-time winner from James Johnson against Maziya on the 4th of April, the only goal of the match, gave The Blues a further three points, an encounter which turned out to be decisive eventually. Bengaluru FC then played Abahani Limited home and away and came off with a win and a loss respectively, the scoreline being 2-0 on both occasions. A second successive defeat followed, this time against the Mariners, and Bengaluru were left with the task of defeating Maziya in their final group game to qualify for the Inter-zone semi-finals spot.
Once again, it was the skipper, Sunil Chhetri, who stepped up to the plate. The highest Indian goal-scorer in International football curled a free kick from the edge of the box past the wall and into the top left corner to send his side through to the knockouts. Despite being level on points with their Maldivian opposition, Bengaluru went through on account of the head-to-head results in the group fixtures.
Chhetri opened the scoring for The Blues in the semi-finals as well. Facing off against North Korean club April 25 Sports Club at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore, the skipper gave the hosts the lead by chipping a penalty past keeper Ri Kang, who was guilty of giving the penalty away by fouling Udanta Singh inside the box. Udanta doubled the lead, capitalizing on a mis-pass from the North Korean outfit’s defence. He then charged down the right and placed the ball into the bottom corner, without giving Ri Kang a chance.
Chhetri was instrumental in the third goal as well, as he made a 50-yard dash down the left flank before squaring it to Lenny Rodrigues, who slid over the muddy penalty box to complete the job. After the two teams played out a goalless draw in the return leg, Bengaluru FC went through to the playoff final where they’d face Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol.
A flying header from Dmitry Barkov meant that The Blues, despite having a major chance to equalize in the latter stages, had to return home trailing by a goal to nil. The second leg started off with Nuriddin Davronov doubling Istiklol’s lead on aggregate by converting from the spot after Gurpreet Sandhu tripped Fatkhullo Fatkhulloev inside the box.
An inch-perfect header from Rahul Bheke in the 24th minute just about kept the hosts in the game, but Bengaluru was dealt with another setback right before the half-time whistle as Harmanjot Khabra was sent off after receiving a second yellow for a dreadful challenge. Some shambolic defending ensured that Istiklol got their second goal of the night, and despite Chhetri’s successful penalty kick in the 65th minute, The Blues were unable to progress, having lost the tie 2 goals to 3.