Portuguese coach Mario Lemos is still proud of Abahani although they failed to make it to the AFC Cup inter-zone final play-off following an 5-4 defeat on aggregate at the hands of North Korea’s April 25 SC.
The Sky Blues suffered a 2-0 loss in the second-leg match of the inter-zone semifinal in Pyongyang on Wednesday.
“I am still proud of Abahani. There is no dissatisfaction over not making it into the inter-zone final because Abahani beat a good side like April 25 in the knockout stage [4-3 in the first leg] after emerging group champions with 13 points with four wins and one draw and loss each whereas they had finished the group stage of the AFC Cup with only four points in the previous two editions.
“I told the players they can now say that they beat a strong club like April 25 and gathered the experience of the kind of preparation they need to play against such a club, who are really the strongest side I have met in my coaching career,” Lemos told The Daily Star over phone from China yesterday.
The coaches, players and officials were out of reach since Abahani entered North Korea on Monday with hopes of getting a result that would see them make history by becoming the first Bangladeshi club to play the AFC Cup inter-zone final.
Lemos shared his experience of the trip to the world’s most secretive state, where he spent three days in a hotel without internet or contact with the outside world.
“It felt weird as there was no internet; no communication with others. We could not make any contact on the first day but the players contacted their families the next day through phones and completed the conversations with hi and hello,” Lemos recounted.
“It was a different reality. We weren’t allowed to go outside. Our movements were from the hotel to the ground and the ground to the hotel. It seemed to be prison. It was a different culture and a different nation. But the hotel was good and the food was good.
“Even reporters looked afraid of asking the questions in the calm and quiet environment of press conferences.”
It was also learnt that Lemos’s laptop was checked and the books he had carried were scrutinised at immigration.
After the rigid checking at the airport, the Portuguese coach had a tough time on the artificial turf, where April 25 proved pacier than in the first game in Dhaka.
“It was a really tough match for us because they started strongly. We had also some scoring chances but could not avail those opportunities. Sunday [Chizoba] missed in a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper and [Nabib Newaj] Jibon squandered one chance while another chance was created by a long throw-in from Raihan [Hasan] in the first half,” the 32-year-old continued.
“We were on course at half-time as it was 0-0 but we conceded at the start of the second half. There was still a chance to come back but it was really tough when Mamun Mia was sent off with a second booking while attempting to foil a counter attack. We tried to equalise but conceded from the counter attack at the last moment.
“There were more spectators than in Dhaka in the gallery and they were loudly backing their club throughout the match,” Lemos added, before reiterating that April 25 were the better side on the day and deserved a victory.