Mahesh Gawali, the legendary centre-back was only 22 when he travelled with the National football team to play the 2002 LG Cup in Vietnam.
Twenty years later, the fans still recall the momentous occasion when a young Indian team shocked hosts Vietnam 3-1 in the final to win the trophy, India’s first major continental conquest since the Pesta Sukan meet in 1971.
Now the assistant coach of the National Team, Gawali, 42, felt truly nostalgic on the eve of leaving for Vietnam to play Hung Thinh Friendly Football Tournament from September 24-27, where India will take on Singapore and Vietnam. He has fond memories of the LG Cup, especially the final when India came back from a two-goal deficit to prevail over the hosts in a stunning manner.
“We played a great match against Vietnam in the final. We won the match and the tournament which was surely a great occasion in the history of Indian Football,” Gawali recalled before leaving for Vietnam from Kolkata.
“Beating Vietnam in their backyard surely gave a different feeling altogether. It was our first international title triumph after 1971, apart from regional tournaments like the SAF Games and the SAFF Cup. Now that I am going to Vietnam as the assistant coach, I once again want to return home victorious. I am confident the boys will put up a great show in the next two matches,” Gawali said.
A veteran of many a battle during his playing days, Gawali said, “Vietnam are a good team and they are strong side both mentally and physically. As it is, playing against the hosts is always a challenge. But we are fully confident of beating them.”
In his professional career spanning over 17 years, the former India defender had won almost every major trophy in the domestic circuit and spent a dozen glorious years with the National Team. After hanging up his boots in 2015, Gawali took up coaching. Having been selected as the assistant coach of the Blue Tigers last year Gawali feels there is a huge difference between being a player and a coach.
“Being an assistant coach certainly gives a nice feeling. At the same time, I do realise that I am burdened with enormous responsibilities. There is lot more difference between becoming a player and then a coach. Overall, it is surely a good experience for me,” Mahesh said.
The last time India and Vietnam met each other was in 2010 in Pune where India won the international friendly 3-1 with Sunil Chhetri scoring a hat-trick.
“We want to win both the matches in Vietnam and play good football. Both the countries have progressed in their playing styles but India have many talented players. A few months back, our boys dished out a good performance (AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in June 2022) and I am sure they will continue the momentum in Vietnam,” said Gawali.
Recently, Gawali watched the boys play matches for their respective clubs in the Durand Cup and believes there is no reason to worry about their fitness. However, India will have to remain cautious throughout the tour.
“I believe with most of the players having played the Durand Cup this month, it will help the team to do better in terms of fitness and play 90 minutes at the same pace. The players are in good shape overall,” Mahesh remarked.
In the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers in June, the Blue Tigers played three matches and finished with a hundred per cent win record.