Iraq 2 (5) (Bashar Bonyan 27′ p, Aymen Ghadhban 80′ p)
India 2 (4) (Mahesh Naorem 17′, Jalal Hasan 51′ og)
It was a crushing experience for Igor Stimac’s boys to have the victory snatched away from them in the penalty shoot-out after a rousing regulation time display at the 700th Anniversary Stadium in the first semi-final of the 49th King’s Cup 2023 on September 7, 2023.
It was a typical story of so near and yet so far for India as they played their hearts out to hold mighty Iraq to a 2-2 draw in 90 minutes before going down 5-4 in the tie-breaker. India twice took the lead against the 70th place team in the FIFA rankings, only to find the leads getting cancelled by the two spot kicks awarded against them.
But then, the story that unfolded will be remembered for a long time, as India came agonisingly close to securing their maiden win over Iraq but ultimately succumbed to a gut-wrenching loss. The unfortunate defeat marked the end of India’s impressive unbeaten streak of 12 matches, as they suffered their first loss of the year.
The early stages of the match showcased India’s determination to make history. Naorem Mahesh Singh ignited the Indian fans’ hopes when he found the back of the net in the 16th minute, expertly exploiting a sublime pass from Sahal Abdul Samad. It was a moment of brilliance, as Naorem deceived Iraqi goalkeeper Jalal Hasan by slotting the ball past him at the near post.
However, Iraq swiftly responded, drawing level in the 28th minute from the penalty spot. A. Al-Hamadi calmly converted the spot-kick after Sandesh Jhingan was penalised for a handball. The Lions of Mesopotamia continued to press and came close to taking the lead, only to be thwarted by India’s vigilant goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
The second half began with a twist that favoured India. A rare mistake by Iraq’s goalkeeper Hasan gifted India the lead. Akash Mishra, who was played into the Iraq box on the right, sent in a low and pwoerful cross, which was mishandled by Hasan, as the ball trickled into the net. With India ahead 2-1, they shifted their focus to defence, putting up a resolute barrier that denied Iraq much room to manoeuvre.
However, a second penalty for Iraq in the 80th minute breathed new life into the contest. Aymen Ghadhban earned the spot-kick after an aerial duel with Nikhil Poojary and Jhingan. Ghadhban converted, levelling the score once again. India’s defence held firm despite Iraq’s late offensive surge.
Injury time saw Iraq reduced to 10 men as Zidane Iqbal received a red card for a reckless challenge on Brandon Fernandes. But there was hardly time for India to take advantage as the match went into a nerve-wracking penalty shootout.
The shootout was a test of nerves, but it ultimately favoured Iraq, who converted all their penalties to secure a spot in the final. Brandon Fernandes’ missed penalty was a rare blemish in an otherwise outstanding performance by the Indian team.
Before this heart-wrenching loss, India had been in superb form throughout the year, remaining undefeated and clinching three international trophies—the Tri-Nations Series in March, the Intercontinental Cup in Bhubaneshwar, and the SAFF Championship in Bengaluru in July. This match against Iraq showcased the Blue Tigers’ tenacity and fighting spirit as they went toe-to-toe with a formidable opponent ranked 29 places higher in the FIFA Rankings.
Although India fell short in the semi-finals, they still have a chance to claim third place in the tournament, as they are set to compete in the third-place playoff match on September 10.