AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: Qualifying for the FIFA World Cup remains Indian Football's biggest dream. Nine previous campaigns to reach the world's greatest single sporting event have been unsuccessful. But when you talk about India's best performance in a qualifying tournament, there's only one campaign that comes to mind – In 2002, when India missed out on reaching the final round by a solitary point.
"Definitely our best World Cup Qualifiers," prompts Mahesh Gawali, whose solid partnership in central defence with Deepak Mondal was key to India's famous 1-0 win over UAE in Bangalore. That's how Sukhwinder Singh's side kicked off the qualifiers. The Kanteerava Stadium, the stage for one of India's most sensational silverware wins at the SAFF Championship earlier this year, was also the venue for perhaps the nation's most high-profile victory of the century.
India were placed 124 in the FIFA Rankings. UAE, coached by Frenchman Henri Michel, were way up at 64th. India have not beaten a side ranked higher than that since. Michel had led France to third place at the World Cup in 1986 and Olympic gold in 1984 but was left scratching his head on the Kanteerava touchline on the evening of April 8, 2001, as his side fell short against the ever-so-determined Indians.
The lone goal, the result of a melee in the six-yard box, came from the right boot of Jules Alberto. It all started with Khalid Jamil's long throw to IM Vijayan, who expertly brought it down before his shot on the turn was blocked. But Alberto had sneaked in behind and managed to improvise a flick over Mutaz Abdulla in the UAE goal to send the stadium into a frenzy.
"The UAE match was one of the best of my career," says Renedy Singh, who bossed the left side of midfield. "They have always been a great side, and we're yet to even come close to beating them since.
"We had a lot of individual brilliance. Bhaichung (Bhutia) and Viju bhai (IM Vijayan) up front, (Jo Paul) Ancheri in the middle. Jules was on the right, I was on the left. Sukhi sir (Sukhwinder Singh) knew how to keep the team together. We came from different clubs, but were always on the same page with the national team," Renedy shares.
India eventually finished the group with 11 points - three wins (UAE and two versus Brunei) and two draws with Yemen. Only UAE, the group winners, made it through to the next round of qualification with 12 points. It was a campaign of what-ifs. A fortnight after the Bangalore win, ten-man India were beaten 0-1 by UAE in the reverse fixture in Al Ain. What if Bhaichung Bhutia wasn't sent off early in the second half? What if the 24-year-old, at the peak of his career, was available for the next match in Sana'a, where India had to settle for a 3-3 draw against Yemen?
"We would have made it to the second round," Renedy puts it simply.
"We played so well, but unfortunately it wasn't enough," says Gawali. "Just one point made the difference. Our team and the coach were fantastic. We had motivation from all corners. Those memories stay with us."
Head coach Sukhwinder Singh knew his players in and out. The classic 4-4-2 yielded India 11 goals in six games, conceding only five. Opening up more on the campaign, Gawali says, "We knew that UAE were a superior side. Our coach gave us individual duties after studying them. The guidance of the senior players also helped a lot. That's the togetherness the coach brought into the squad."
What made the victory more special was the fact that such a young backline soaked the pressure from a top Asian side and kept a deserved clean sheet. Gawali and Mondal were 21, and only just stepping into the realm of international football. Full-back Surkumar Singh had turned 18 less than a month before.
"Our coordination in the team was very good. We used to understand each other so well. We knew each other's strong and weak points. Surkumar was good at running up and down but wasn't particularly strong in one-on-one situations, so we knew when to cover for him. Me and Deepak (Mondal) knew what each other could and couldn't do. Everyone knew everyone else's capabilities. That's what made that team strong," Gawali explains.
If the Gawali-Mondal partnership shone at the back, strikers Vijayan and Bhutia ran the show in attack, well complemented by Ancheri, who bagged four goals although playing as a midfielder. "My favourite was the long-ranger in Yemen from 35-40 yards out," says Ancheri, whose left foot was one of the best Indian football has ever seen.
Goals were never a problem for India, and the individual quality was top-notch.
"IM Vijayan was like a magician. You didn't know what he was going to do next. Nobody taught him anything. He came from a village and became a star. Bhaichung Bhutia was like a fox in the box. We had a lot of leaders and naturally talented players in the team," says Gawali.
Twenty-two years later, the Blue Tigers are yet to match that tally of 11 points in World Cup qualifying. Gawali, now India's assistant coach, hopes the 2026 campaign could be the one to overhaul that record. "We've got a highly-skilled bunch of players with us, and hopefully the time has come to go one step better and make it to the next round," he says.