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Updated December 28th, 2023 at 22:00 IST

2011 Asian Cup: When a bunch of bravehearts broke a 27-year Hoodoo

Nabi was not your ordinary full-back. Speed, guile and a genius mind. You don't earn 62 senior national team caps if you're an average player.

AFC Asian Cup 2011
AFC Asian Cup 2011 | Image:AIFF
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Twenty-seven years is a long time. That's how much India had to wait to make it to the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 1984. A sensational 4-1 triumph over Tajikistan in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup Final at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi was not only remarkable for Sunil Chhetri's first international hat-trick, but India's return to the continent's biggest stage.

Left-back Syed Rahim Nabi, who started all three matches in the 2011 Asian Cup, shares his fond and everlasting memories from the tournament, the journey of making it to Qatar and the profound impact it had on his marvellous career. Only 16 teams made it to the Asian Cup, and India were one of them.

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"Playing the 2011 Asian Cup was the biggest achievement of my football career," Nabi utters without a doubt. "For us, it was like the World Cup because you don't get opportunities like this again. We waited three years for the tournament after qualifying for it. Those three years were very important ones in our lives."

Nabi was not your ordinary full-back. Speed, guile and a genius mind. You don't earn 62 senior national team caps if you're an average player. He revolutionised the full-back position, and that's a bit funny considering the fact that he didn't even begin his playing career there.

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Three head coaches hold a special place in Nabi's heart. Sukhwinder Singh, who handed him his India debut in 2005 in the very same match as Chhetri - against Pakistan in Quetta. Then, Subhash Bhowmick, who converted the 'striker Nabi' into the 'left-back Nabi'. And finally, Bob Houghton, who never lost trust in him and under whom he played his career's three biggest matches out of the 62.

However, Nabi was not Houghton's first choice at the start of his reign. The Hooghly-born defender did not play a single minute in the AFC Challenge Cup.

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"I was not part of the playing eleven during the qualification process. I did not start a single match, but I was always in the squad. Coach Bob always kept me. There was a lot of competition to get into the team. Sometimes Surkumar (Singh) used to play, sometimes it was Deepak da (Mondal)," says Nabi.

"My advantage was that I could play in a variety of positions - left back, right back, in the wings or the midfield."

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And that's what kept his berth secured in the national team. It would only be a matter of time before Nabi transitioned into an indispensable member of the team. He was winning trophies every year with India. The Nehru Cup in 2007, 2009 and 2012 and the SAFF Championship in 2011. His contribution to the Blue Tigers was aptly rewarded with the AIFF Player of the Year honour in 2012.

As one would imagine, the 2011 AFC Asian Cup was a life-changer for not just Nabi, but all 23 members of the Indian squad. By far the lowest-ranked team at 133rd in the FIFA Rankings, 27 places below the second-lowest North Korea, India had absolutely nothing to lose. A once-in-a-lifetime trip to Qatar to rub shoulders against the continent's elites.

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"Playing against teams like Australia, South Korea and Bahrain was an extraordinary experience for me. Yes, we suffered three heavy losses, but I wouldn't say we played as badly as the scoreline suggested. We were up against some of the very best in Asia. That experience changed our lives. There was so much to learn from it," shares Nabi.

India were beaten comprehensively by all three of their much higher-ranked opponents. But plainly looking at the results would not be the right way to judge this talented bunch of players. After all, qualifying for the Asian Cup back when it used to be a 16-team tournament, in its own right, was one of Indian football's major achievements in the recent past. It's no surprise Nabi credits that accomplishment to Houghton.

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"The coach played an important role in our success. Nobody has done what Bob Houghton did for the Indian team. He changed the footballing system of India," Nabi says.

"We never knew how to win the second ball on the pitch. He taught us that. He taught us the English way of playing football. Every coach tells his players to give their hundred per cent, but Bob was different. He was utterly disciplined about sticking to our formation and tactics. Only those who were able to learn his trade quickly enough made it into his squad," he further explains.

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"Even after Bob left, his learnings stuck with us. Playing football became easier."

Now, 12 years down the line, playing an Asian Cup is no longer a dream. It's the bare minimum. India have qualified for successive Asian Cups for the first time in their history. And while the Blue Tigers missed out on the knockout stage by the thinnest of margins in 2019, Nabi believes they can make that happen this time despite India landing themselves in a relatively tougher group.

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"Now, our football has developed a lot. I like Igor Stimac. I've met him. He knows how to build his squad. After his arrival, the team has seen lots of improvements.

"The current bunch of boys is excellent. They are playing fast football, beating big and strong teams. Sunil (Chhetri) is still going strong. I have the feeling that our boys can do something this time. We will face Syria again, a side we had beaten twice in Nehru Cup finals. We will definitely fight against all three teams. I have full confidence in them," Nabi believes.

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2011 AFC Asian Cup India Squad

Goalkeepers: Subrata Pal, Subhasish Roy Choudhury, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

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Defenders: Anwar Ali, Mahesh Gawali, Deepak Kumar Mondal, NS Manju, Rakesh Masih, Syed Rahim Nabi, Gouramangi Singh, Govin Moirangthem Singh, I Surkumar Singh.

Midfielders: Steven Dias, Climax Lawrence, Clifford Miranda, NP Pradeep, Baldeep Singh Jr, P Renedy Singh, Mehrajuddin Wadao.

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Forwards: Bhaichung Bhutia (C), Sunil Chhetri, Sushil Kumar Singh, Abhishek Yadav.

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Published December 28th, 2023 at 22:00 IST

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