Sunday, October 10, 2010

Commonwealth Games 2010: party time as India beat Pakistan to set up England clash

It was the night when the Commonwealth Games came to life. A sell-out crowd of 20,000 flag-waving fans screaming themselves hoarse as India thumped seven goals past their old hockey adversaries, Pakistan, to clinch a semi-final place against England.

Finally, after six days of half-empty stadiums and general indifference among locals to the sporting events that have turned their city into a military zone, the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium erupted into a giant party yesterday. Jose Brasa, India’s Spanish coach, likened it to being inside the BernabĂ©u.

If only the rest of the Games could have been like this. How different it all was to the eerily empty streets that had greeted the cyclists for the men’s and women’s road races just a few hours earlier.

Even the omnipresent police and security personnel appeared to be fighting a losing battle as spectators ignored their exhortations to sit down, many choosing to stand and cheer for the entire game.

Among them in the cheap seats was Indian National Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, who, in an apparent political gesture, eschewed the Games VIP area and chose to sit with paying customers behind one of the goals, heralding a mass outbreak of rubber-necking when the pair were spotted.

This was not a time for class distinction. Indians, facing a must-win clash with Pakistan in their national sport, were in it together.

The match had long been billed as the “Game of the Games” - ever since the last ticket was sold 3½ months ago — but what was not known then was that the cross-border showdown would be a winner-takes-all affair, deciding who would go forward to the semi-finals and who would be leaving with nothing.

With both sides tied on six points before the match but with Pakistan boasting a superior goal difference, the visitors needed only a draw while India required a victory.

India’s lame 5-2 capitulation to world champions Australia just three days earlier had not exactly inspired much confidence going into yesterday’s match, particularly since Pakistan had looked impressive in their previous pool games.

But India were clearly galvanised by the passionate home support.

Astonishingly, they were 4-0 up within 20 minutes as Sandeep Singh lashed home two penalty corners, Shivendra Singh scored a rebound from another and Saravanjit Singh touched home a long-hit pass from Sandeep to make it an all Singh-ing and dancing start for the hosts.

Two goals for Pakistan before half-time quietened the crowd for a while but by the time Danish Mujtaba swooped on a rebound from a penalty corner just after the interval and poked the ball home, the victory celebrations had begun.

A goal for Dharamvir Singh and a second for Shivendra were met with two Pakistan replies, the match ending 7-4.

India now meet England tomorrow for a place in the final after Barry Middleton’s men secured a 2-1 victory over South Africa earlier in the day to finish on top of their pool. Another sell-out crowd will test their mental fortitude.

“The crowd was excellent,” said Brasa. “I think it is incredible to play with this support. The crowd started shouting and supporting the players as soon as they arrived on the pitch and they carried on shouting every time an Indian player got the ball and looked to attack.

“That is very difficult to find in another country. In football we have something similar in Spain with Real Madrid but it is difficult to find something equal.

“When Spain were playing in the final of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 the crowd were supporting us, but it was nothing like this.”

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