That day, that goal: The closest India ever got to qualifying for the FIFA World Cup
India's biggest giant-killing act in FIFA World Cup qualifying was a 1-0 win vs UAE in 2001. The man who scored the only goal, Jules Alberto Dias, retired and left the country barely 4 years later because 'passion wouldn't pay his bills'.
It has been 17 years since Jules Alberto Dias hung up his football boots and moved to the UK for a job because 'passion wouldn't pay (his) bills'.
A naturalised England supporter now, Dias, a sales manager for an importing company, was sending his 2022 FIFA World Cup predictions on a WhatsApp group for former Goan footballers over the last month. But while watching the miracle stories being scripted by the likes of Morocco, he couldn't help but cast his mind back to 2001 - when his golden goal had taken India to the brink of the World Cup, or at least as close to it as the country has ever reached.
"I didn't realise the significance of the moment back then. I was just in a lucky position, the goal just happened. It's only now, looking back, that I can appreciate it as an achievement," the former India midfielder tells The Bridge.
"All of us started running in different directions, nobody cared who had got the final touch, we were just ecstatic. It was like all of us had scored that goal," he says.
Dias's 71st minute goal at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore on April 8, 2001 gave India a 1-0 victory over the United Arab Emirates as the qualifying campaign for the Korea/Japan World Cup got off to the most stunning start.
The UAE, ranked 64th in the world then, 60 places above India, had been expected to comfortably win all their group matches.
Since that 1-0 win, India have never managed to beat UAE again, never scalp such a win in the World Cup qualifiers and never managed to ever beat a team ranked as high.
UAE's coach then was Henri Michel, who had led France at the 1986 World Cup. But on that day, it was coach Sukhwinder Singh's dead ball instructions honed in JCT's training grounds in Phagwara which triumphed.
"It was a throw routine we had practised many times in training. IM Vijayan would flick the ball as the long throw would come in from Khalid Jamil. I would run in to meet the flick, Bhaichung Bhutia would be behind me," Dias replays the moment.
Indian captain Bhutia, who too had a role in the goal by blocking off the last defender, led the team in giving a standing ovation to the 40,000+ crowd at the end of the match as everyone stayed behind to soak in the atmosphere. Coming close on the heels of Leander Paes taking India to the Davis Cup World Group and new cricket captain Sourav Ganguly giving back to Australia in kind by calling out their 'schoolboyish behaviour', it seemed the time was finally right for India's moment in international football.
Back at the hotel where they were staying, the players were surprised by the staff with a cake to mark the occasion. Cricketer Rahul Dravid also dropped in to congratulate Bhutia's boys.
"It was a golden day. It changed the perception of Indian football in front of the world. When Jules Alberto Dias scored, the stadium went berserk. UAE pushed harder, they were attacking in numbers but Deepak Mondal, Mahesh Gawli and other defenders soaked in the pressure till the final whistle," coach Sukhwinder Singh told The Olympic Channel a few years later.
Controversial red card for Bhutia
For a few precious days after that 1-0 win, anything seemed possible! The dream had just begun. Captain Bhaichung Bhutia, who was the only Europe-based player in the team, kept reminding everyone how they were as good as any team in Asia.
"If you closely observe the match, you'll see none of us in that India team were short. Physically, technically, man-for-man, we were as good as UAE. We genuinely believed we could get something out of the game," says Dias.
"We never actually talked about planning for the next stage of AFC qualifiers, but we believed that anything could happen if we got through from the first round," he adds.
Eventually, India fell short to UAE by 1 point - leaving Dias and his teammates to contemplate on several what-ifs.
"The draws against Yemen were the reason we fell short. We expected to win those easily, but they were just off days for us. The last goal Yemen scored in the second leg was not even a proper move, we were just too slow to react," Dias says with a hint of disgust.
But then, his real anger comes out.
"And there was no Bhaichung!" he says.
Conspiracy theorists have pointed to the red card shown to Bhutia during the away leg vs UAE as being the real reason why India failed to make it through.
"It was fifty-fifty mistake from both sides. Everybody knows what happened. I suspect some foul play behind the referee's decision," a furious Bhutia told reporters after the match.
Even two decades later, the anger with that decision by the Malaysian referee seems fresh with Dias.
"We played with 10 men for 63 minutes but we still managed to show heart. We lost by 0-1. If only we could have drawn that match, we could have gone through to the World Cup. Or even if we could have beaten Yemen in the next match with Bhaichung leading us, we could have gone through to the World Cup," he says.
The red card had a starring role in the most dramatic World Cup qualifying campaign India were involved in, but for Dias, the real tragedy two decades later is that there is very little video evidence of what that special group achieved.
"Whenever I am asked to show YouTube reels of my goals or of that campaign, I have to say there's not much to show," he says.
A moment India failed to seize
Never before or after that have India come as close to qualifying for the WC. Dias says the period was a 'bright spark' in Indian football. Some players were getting offers from abroad and quality foreign coaches were coming in, but the country failed to build on that 2001 campaign because of a lack of attention to the grassroots, according to him.
"Had it started then, we could have seen the effects of it by now," Dias says.
Now too busy with his regular job to follow Indian football very closely but still in touch with some former friends like Mahesh Gawli and Khalid Jamil, Dias hopes that the 9-year-old Indian Super League (ISL) can back up its marketing success with results.
"You need involvement of communities. You need to give free tickets to school kids. Imagine the difference a full stadium makes for a player," he says.
A sudden end to a mercurial career
At the turn of the 21st century, Jules Alberto Dias was one of the country's highest paid footballers, playing for Mahindra United. He also played for some major clubs like Vasco SC, Salgaocar SC and Dempo SC.
From 1999 to 2004, he was a regular in the Indian team, keeping his place as the Sukhwinder Singh era gave way to the Stephen Constantine era.
But suddenly at the age of 30, making his last bow in the same series that saw a 20-year-old Sunil Chhetri make his India debut, Dias retired and left the country.
"The main reason I left football is because there were too few opportunities for former players. Once people stopped playing at 32-33, they would have to do small jobs just to survive, it wasn't a great scene. The salaries also weren't as high as to allow you to set up a business. My wife was getting a job in the UK, I decided to take the plunge too," he says.
"Yes, I probably could have played a couple more years. But that's how football is. When you're good, everyone wants your autograph. When you're bad, no one wants to look at you."
It's not as if Indian football has failed to provide any bright moments in the two decades since then. There have been hard-fought draws earned against the likes of China and Qatar.
But when it comes to beating a top-ranked nation, it is that goal by Jules Alberto Dias in 2001 which we still must look back to.