Bengaluru : In an exhilarating display of skill and determination, the Indian men’s football team emerged victorious in the SAFF Championship 2023, defeating Kuwait 5-4 in a nail-biting penalty shootout at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Tuesday. This remarkable triumph marked India’s ninth SAFF Championship title in 14 editions and added to their recent success in clinching the Intercontinental Cup just a month ago.
The final match proved to be a captivating contest as both teams battled fiercely, with regulation time ending in a 1-1 draw. Kuwait had taken an early lead through Shabaib Al Khaldi’s goal in the 14th minute, but India’s Lallianzuala Chhangte equalised in the 39th minute, ensuring the teams were level at halftime. Despite, several opportunities for both sides, the scoreline remained unchanged at the end of the second half and extra time, setting the stage for a dramatic penalty shootout.
Under the guidance of Indian head coach Igor Stimac, who watched the match from the stands due to a touchline ban, the Indian team exhibited great composure and resilience. Stimac made three changes to the starting lineup from the semi-finals, with Akash Mishra and Nikhil Poojary returning as full-backs and Sandesh Jhingan reinstated at the heart of the defence in place of Mehtab Singh.
India adopted a cautious approach, relying on counter-attacks, while Kuwait applied pressure and launched incisive crosses and through balls. However, it was Kuwait who initially capitalised on their attacking prowess, as Al Khaldi converted a pass from Al Feneeni to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
Determined to find an equaliser, India intensified its offensive efforts. Chhangte had a golden opportunity to level the scores but was denied by Kuwait’s goalkeeper, Mubarak Marzouq. However, India’s perseverance paid off when Ashique Kuruniyan won the ball and set up Sunil Chhetri, who played a well-weighted through-ball to Chhangte, ultimately resulting in the much-needed equaliser.
The second half saw India press for a goal, with Poojary and Chhangte combining effectively on the right flank to supply Chhetri, but Kuwait’s defence remained vigilant and thwarted their attempts. In the 62nd minute, Chhetri’s header from Marzouq’s clearance fell to Chhangte, who failed to capitalise on the chance.
As the match progressed, the intensity escalated, leading to yellow cards being issued to players from both teams. In the dying minutes of regulation time, Kuwait came close to scoring the winner when Mohammad Abdhulla intercepted a throw-in and launched a shot towards the Indian goal. However, an alert Gurpreet Singh Sandhu pulled off a brilliant save, denying Kuwait a certain victory.
With neither team able to break the deadlock during extra time, the fate of the SAFF Championship 2023 was decided by a thrilling penalty shootout. Both sides had their chances, but it was Kuwait’s captain, Hajjeia, who missed the decisive spot-kick in sudden death. India maintained their composure, converting all five of their penalties and emerging triumphant with a 5-4 victory.
The Indian football team’s remarkable journey to the final showcased their determination and skill. They overcame Lebanon in the semi-finals and secured wins against Pakistan and Nepal during the group stage, while their encounter with Kuwait ended in a draw.