Cricket-mad India stunned Thailand 4-1 at the Asian Cup football tournament on Sunday, veteran striker Sunil Chhetri scoring twice in their Group A opener.
Watched by the 12 Thai schoolboys rescued from a flooded jungle cave last year after being trapped for more than two weeks, the War Elephants had little answer to India’s brimming energy in Abu Dhabi.
Chhetri opened the scoring when he smashed home from the penalty spot after 27 minutes.
The Blue Tigers were in front for just seven minutes, Thai captain Teerasil Dangda restoring parity by bravely heading home a Theerathon Bunmathan free kick.
But Chhetri drilled his second of the game moments into the second half following a lung-bursting run down the right from Udanta Singh.
Things got worse for Thailand when Anirudh Thapa chipped in a third in the 68th minute before substitute Lalpekhlua Jeje completed the rout to leave India as unlikely group leaders.
Hosts United Arab Emirates were held 1-1 by Bahrain in Saturday’s curtain-raiser.
India’s players celebrated by performing Iceland’s “Viking Thunderclap” in front of their delirious fans.
“Did I expect to win 4-1? No, but we’re not getting carried away,” insisted India coach Stephen Constantine.
“It’s just another game. There will be no issue with keeping the boys’ feet on the ground, don’t worry about that.”
The Englishman, formerly in charge of Malawi, Sudan and Rwanda, has clashed with senior players and sparked dismay in India by stripping Chhetri of the captaincy.
“There’s no controversy about rotating captains!” he snapped when quizzed by Indian media.
“I’ve done it for four years. Chhetri gives everything every game he plays whether he’s captain or not.”
India finished runners-up on their Asian Cup debut in 1964 when it was a four-team competition won by Israel.
But they had lost six of their last seven games at the regional tournament, conceding 20 goals, before qualifying for the fourth time and first since 2011.
“If I say it’s just another result would that be a cliche?” said Constantine.
“We’ve won one game, got three points. We have two more games, that’s it.”
Thailand, appearing for the since co-hosting the tournament in 2007, have now won just one of 21 games at the Asian Cup.
Thailand coach Milovan Rajevac made no excuses for this side’s humiliating defeat.
“India totally deserved to win,” said the Serb. “We didn’t underestimate them. They were aggressive and fought for everything. But it’s just one game. We have two more left so we have to learn from our mistakes and go again.”