1984 Asian Cup: When India rose rejuvenated like a phoenix
NEW DELHI — The year 1984 has been immortalised by English writer George Orwell through his classic novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. Though it has nothing to do with Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian society, the year 1984 has huge significance in Indian Football, too.
It was the year when Indian Football made a huge turnaround to qualify for the Asian Cup after 20 long years in the wilderness. 1984 was a year of celebration for Indian Football as Sudip Chatterjee and his men marched into the final rounds of the Asian Cup for the first time since 1964. They displayed great team spirit in the qualifiers, and gave a good account of themselves in the finals in Singapore, which included a goalless draw against mighty Iran.
Sadly, Chatterjee is not among us anymore. But there are others to tell the tale about how a bunch of 20 players stood united to accept the challenge of taking India to the elite group. It was like the iconic dialogue from Shahrukh Khan’s Bollywood movie ‘Chak de! India’: “Mujhe States Ke Naam Na Sunai Dete Hai Na Dikhai Dete Hai … Sirf Ek Mulk Ka Naam Sunai Deta Hai – India!” (I can neither hear, nor see the name of any state … I can only hear the name of one nation – India).
While players performed commendably, many believe the driving force behind India’s success was Yugoslav coach Milovan Ciric, who was then known as one of the finest in the business in the world of football. He made it clear that the team is above any individual. India earned a significant amount of success under Milovan and everybody who got the chance to play under him cherishes their memory to date.
“As a coach, Milovan Sir was exceptional. He knew Indian players came from different states, different cultures and different food habits. Yet he managed to jell us up as a team. He was aware of the capabilities of each player and used them accordingly. He taught us that football is a team game; victories or defeats are part of our collective responsibilities,” Atanu Bhattacharya, the number one custodian of the 1984 Asian Cup squad, told the www.the-aiff.com from his Kolkata residence.
Under the guidance of Milovan, the team successfully navigated their qualifiers in Calcutta (now Kolkata). They defeated Yemen Arab Republic (4-0), Malaysia (2-1), and Pakistan (2-0) before losing to South Korea (1-0). It, however, did not stop the Blue Tigers from earning their spot in the Singapore 1984 tournament.
Drawn into a challenging group with hosts Singapore, China, Iran, and the UAE, India faced formidable competition. Unfortunately, India lost three of the four matches they played, but stunned the fans by forcing hot favourites Iran to share points with a draw.
A significant portion of the credit for this successful campaign goes to Atanu Bhattacharya, who exhibited exceptional goalkeeping skills. Standing tall between the sticks, Bhattacharya made numerous brilliant saves, playing a pivotal role in India’s qualification for the final round. Atanu played for Asian All-Star, India, Bengal, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Mohammedan Sporting besides, wearing the national team colours.
“The 1984 Asian Cup final rounds remain etched in my memory for two reasons. First, we played well in the tournament against the top teams in Asia, though we could not win any matches.”
“I had a great tournament and eventually was named in the Asian All-Star squad for the two exhibition matches against Hungary in Saudi Arabia. It was a huge achievement since I was the only Indian player to be picked up for the continental squad.
“In the Asian Cup final rounds, we lost three of our matches against Singapore, Saudi Arabia and China, but surprised everyone by drawing goalless against Iran, the best team in the group. I was determined to give my best in this match and eventually came out without being beaten once. Even the Iran coach had lots of good things to say about me in the post-match press conference,” Atanu remembered.
The National Team faced formidable challenges in terms of facilities and exposure tours, making the journey far from a walk in the park. Nevertheless, each individual battled valiantly for the honour of the country.
On being asked about the preparations the team made earlier, Atanu said, “During our playing days, there was hardly any exposure for the National Team. We only played in regulation tournaments like the Asian Games, Asian Cup, pre-Olympics, etc. Before the Asian Cup qualifiers, we had a one-month camp in Kolkata and that was all. We had a coach and an assistant coach, but no specialised goalkeepers’ coach. Frankly, I learned my tricks on my own. In the Asian Cup final rounds, I knew the pressure would be on me since our defence would be under pressure against the best teams in Asia. I stayed alert and confident under the bar.
“I still feel proud of the way we played in the qualifiers in Kolkata. Our boys were in roaring form. Only two goals were conceded in the qualifiers,” the Indian goalkeeper, who played 41 matches and has 10 clean sheets, said.
“We had a strong team with a few very good players like captain Sudip Chatterjee, Parminder Singh, Prasanta Banerjee, Mauricio Afonso, Shabbir Ali, Krishanu Dey, Bishwajit Bhattacharya, etc. They could dictate terms on the pitch and had fine attacking qualities. It made the difference,” Atanu said.
Another name that comes up with Atanu Bhattacharya when anyone speaks about the 1984 Asian Cup is Mauricio Afonso. The Goa medio is among the best midfielders the country has produced and has played for Salcete FC, Salgaocar FC and Dempo FC for a good 15 years. A star of the 1984 team, Afonso played 49 matches for India and scored four goals.
“How many tournaments have I played for India? I don’t remember. In how many matches have I donned the National jersey? I never maintained those statistics,” said Afonso with a laugh.
“All I know is that I was fortunate to play with some wonderfully talented footballers in the National Team. And one of the best was the 1984 Asian Cup squad. Sudip Chatterjee, Krishanu Dey, Parminder Singh, etc. were ball players of excellent quality who could take charge in the middle at any point in time,” Afonso told the www.the-aiff.com from Goa.
Like Atanu, Afonso also remains a Milovan Ciric fan to date. “Another big advantage was the presence of Milovan Sir. His understanding of the game was amazing. He knew that we were playing club football continuously throughout the season. So, he would never push us beyond a certain level. His training sessions were limited but highly effective. The few strategic changes he would make were enough to add an extra punch to our game. I remember Milovan would never get angry, even if the result was bad. The next day, he would do the analysis and explain to us what exactly went wrong.
“He was a classic coach,” recalls Afonso.
“The qualification round gave us strength and confidence. We knew that for 20 years India had not qualified for the Asian Cup. But that didn’t deter us from believing in ourselves. We started with a bang, defeating Yemen by four goals in the qualifiers’ opener. Thereafter, we never had to look back.“
To judge our team by its performance only in the 1984 Asian Cup final rounds would not be fair. Unlike the current practice, we didn’t have a goalkeeper’s coach, a fitness coach, or a video analyst. You won’t believe it; the team didn’t even have a doctor. We were left to fend for ourselves. But we managed things on our own and delivered a good performance. After that, it took India another 27 years to play the final rounds again,” Afonso pointed out.