By Samindra Kunti
November 7 – In a historic AFC Cup final Iraq won their first regional club championship at the third time of asking when Hammadi Ahmed scored the decisive goal for Iraq’s Air Force Club to overcome India’s Bengaluru FC in Doha.
Bengaluru FC had already become the first Indian club to qualify for the AFC Cup final. They had beaten defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim of Malaysia in the semi-finals 4-2 on aggregate last month. For the Iraqis, Air Force Club completed what Arbil had failed to do as runners-up in the 2012 and 2014 championships.
The I-League champions Bengaluru were outplayed the Indians, who sat deep and tried to hit on the counterattack, spearheaded by talismanic striker Sunil Chetri.
Star striker Ahmed, who had scored 15 goals in the 11 matches Air Force Club played in getting to the final, netted the match-winner in the 71st minute to give his side their maiden AFC Cup title. Ahmed also won the AFC Cup MVP award.
For India, the final represented a highlight in an emerging football culture that for too long has been hampered by a dysfunctional FA, the AIFF, and a fragmented football landscape, highlighted by the differences and tensions between the Indian Super League and the I-League. The national team, the Blue Tigers, are lingering in the 137th position on the FIFA ranking, sandwiched in between Vietnam and Burundi.
The AFC Cup is played between clubs from AFC countries that fall into their ‘developing nations’ category as laid out in their ‘Vision Asia’ document – the countries from the 14 ‘next-best’ countries outside the top-14 countries in the AFC region which send their clubs to the top tier club competition the AFC Champions League.
AFC Cup finalists enter the qualifying round of AFC Champions League. Clubs that lose in the qualifying rounds drop to play in the AFC Cup.
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