• Sun. Apr 21st, 2024

India vs Afghanistan: Memories of feisty encounters come rushing to Sunil Chhetri

Followed by Nepal, Afghanistan are the side India have faced the most number of times in the last 15 years. That includes three consecutive SAFF Championship finals, two World Cup Qualifiers and one Asian Cup Qualifier.

If there were any doubts that this regional rivalry had run its course after Afghanistan left SAFF in 2016, they were erased as the Blue Tigers and the Lions of Khorasan were drawn together in the same groups of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, the 2023 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, and now the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers. The history of India-Afghanistan fixtures goes back to 1949 when they met in a series of friendly matches in Kabul before a first competitive meeting at the 1951 Asian Games in Delhi, but in recent times, the stakes have only gone higher, and most of the meetings have been nail-biting affairs, occasionally boiling over.

Nobody in the Indian squad can tell about Afghanistan better than Sunil Chhetri. He has played eight matches against them (first at the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup in Hyderabad), scoring four goals – the free-kick in Kolkata in 2022 perhaps the most spectacular of them.

“They have progressively improved from when we met them for the first time,” said Chhetri. “The games were comfortable, but slowly and steadily they progressed. And because of being in the same region, the rivalry also generated. Hence, the games became quite close. Both India and Afghanistan have improved in the last decade or so. Having players who play outside has really helped them.”

Between 2011 and 2016, the SAFF Championship trophy only passed between the hands of India and Afghanistan as they contested three straight finals, taking the rivalry to the next level. In 2011, India blanked them 4-0 on a cold winter evening in Delhi. Sunil Chhetri, Clifford Miranda, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Sushil Kumar Singh scored 25 minutes apart in a second-half blitz.

However, the 2013 final was and still is Afghanistan’s greatest-ever footballing moment. With a 2-0 win over India in Kathmandu, they clinched their first-ever silverware, also recording what remains their only victory over the Blue Tigers. “I was on the bench, I remember, yes,” recalled Chhetri, who came on in the 60th minute, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the loss.

Two years later, India got their revenge. The 2015 edition was India’s most thrilling SAFF Championship triumph until it was surpassed by the 2023 final in Bengaluru. Over 40,000 in Thiruvananthapuram witnessed Stephen Constantine’s side script a 2-1 comeback victory over the Afghans in extra time. Jeje Lalpekhlua flicked in Chhetri’s header to cancel Zubayr Amiri’s opener before the skipper squeezed in the winner in the 101st minute to seal a title which still remains fresh in his memory.

In the last five years, the rivalry has shifted to the continental stage. There was nothing to separate India and Afghanistan in both games of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers — 1-1 draws each in the away fixture in Tajikistan in November 2019, courtesy of Seiminlen Doungel’s last-minute equaliser, and in India’s home fixture played at a neutral venue in Qatar in June 2021 due to the pandemic.

But Chhetri’s favourite India-Afghanistan moment came in 2022 when the Blue Tigers triumphed 2-1 after plenty of late drama at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata, thus ensuring qualification for successive AFC Asian Cups for the first time ever. An exquisite Chhetri free-kick broke 85 minutes of deadlock to finally put India ahead, however, Zubayr Amiri thought he had earned Afghanistan a point when he headed in the equaliser just two minutes later. But Sahal Abdul Samad had other plans as he slotted in a 91st-minute winner to send 44,000 fans into raptures.

“The rivalry has been feisty. Whether it was the final in Kerala (SAFF Championship 2015) or the Asian Cup Qualifier in Kolkata,” said Chhetri.

“I would pick the latter (as his favourite moment). The only thing we remember from that match is Sahal’s goal because of the way it turned out. None of us, probably the whole country would not remember anything else but the added-time goal. Udanta keeping the ball in, giving it to Ashique, Ashique holding the ball and laying it to Sahal, and Sahal finishing it. That probably will stay with all of us for a long, long time because the importance of the goal was huge at that moment as it gave us qualification for the Asian Cup,” the captain shared.

Fast forward to the present day, India and Afghanistan will meet twice in a gap of five days (March 21 and 26) as they hunt for a place in Round 3 of the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers. The new Indo-Afghan chapter will be scripted in two venues over 5,000 kilometres apart – from the coolness of Abha to the humidity of Guwahati.

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