In the picturesque setting of Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu, Bhutan, India’s U-16 team secured their status as champions of the SAFF U-16 Championship 2023, defeating Bangladesh 2-0 in a high-octane final. Bharat Lairenjam found the net in the first half, while Levis Zangminlun sealed the victory with a second-half goal, ensuring a comfortable win for India.
The moment referee Hussain Zaheer blew the final whistle, the young Indian squad erupted in jubilation. The players embraced one another, their faces glowing with uncontainable happiness for a mission superbly executed.
Guided by head coach Ishfaq Ahmed, the Blue Colts had a sparkling run throughout the championship. They exhibited a mesmerising brand of free-flowing, attacking football that left opponents struggling. They finished top of Group A after edging out Bangladesh and Nepal with 1-0 victories in both instances. Their semi-final clash with the Maldives was a masterclass in offence, resulting in an 8-0 triumph. Remarkably, the team accomplished all of this without conceding a single goal throughout the tournament.
In the final match against Bangladesh, India displayed tactical prowess and control. With adept ball distribution and intelligent utilisation of available space, they effectively countered Bangladesh’s more physical style of play. Key contributors like Mohammad Arbash, Vishal Yadav, and Levis Zangminlun penetrated the Bangladeshi defence with fluid runs and skillful dribbling, making it easier for India to dictate the tempo from start to finish.
At the heart of India’s defence was the indomitable Karish Soram. Always alert, he fearlessly placed his body in the line of fire whenever the situation demanded. And when Bangladesh found a way past him, India goalkeeper Aheibam Suraj Singh stood like a rock, unyielding and resolute.
India’s initial breakthrough came early, just eight minutes into the match. Levis Zangminlun provided an incisive through ball to forward Bharat Lairenjam, who swiftly invaded the space ahead and slotted the ball between the legs of Bangladesh goalkeeper Mohammad Nahidul Islam to score.
Bangladesh responded to India’s goal and got a chance to equalise but Mohammed Mursed Ali fluffed his lines. The forward beat the offside trap and took control of a through ball from Bangladesh captain Nazmul Huda Faysal. However, India goalkeeper Suraj Singh swiftly charged forward to cut down the angle, causing Ali to miss the target.
Throughout the first half, Lairenjam and India’s captain, Mate Ngamgouhou, consistently pressured the Bangladeshi defence, creating multiple scoring opportunities. In the 34th minute, a particularly promising chance materialised. A long ball was lofted towards the Bangladesh penalty area, prompting Indian forward Mohammad Arbash to give chase. Recognising that Bangladeshi goalkeeper Nahidul Islam had ventured off his line to attempt a clearance, Arbash seized the moment. He skillfully attempted to head the ball over the onrushing keeper. However, Islam was quick to react, successfully punching the ball out of harm’s way and preserving the 1-0 scoreline as the teams entered halftime.
India started the second half with the same intensity. Their relentless search for another goal bore fruit in the 74th minute with a sublime strike. Samson Ahongshangbam initiated a promising move down the left wing before expertly switching play to send the ball to Levis Zangminlun on the opposite flank. Engaging in a swift one-two pass with Vishal Yadav, Zangminlun outmanoeuvred his defender to find himself in open space. Taking a moment to set himself, he then unleashed a devastating left-footed strike that sailed into the back of the net, doubling India’s advantage.
INDIA XI: Aheibam Suraj Singh, Mate Ngamgouhou, Karish Soram, Mohammed Kaif, Levis Zangminlun, Md Arbash (Manbhakupar Malngiang, 83’), Bharat Lairenjam (Aiborlang Kharthangmaw, 90’), Vishal Yadav (Bobby Singh, 83’), Samson Ahongshangbam (Rishi Singh Ningthoukhongjam, 90’), Yaipharemba Chingakham, Thoungamba Singh Usham.
The award-winners at the presentation ceremony were as follows:
Best Goalkeeper: Suraj Singh
Most Valuable Player (MVP) & Highest Scorer: Mohammed Arbash