By Debayan Mukherjee
Kolkata, Sep 17 (IANS) The least fans expected was a narrow-margin defeat, and that would have been progress in the right direction for Indian football, when they came up against reigning Asian champions Qatar in a Group E second round World Cup qualifier on September 10.
Instead, what transpired in the 90 minutes at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha last Tuesday saw Sunil Chhetri lose his voice at the team hotel, Xavi Hernandez chew his nails in nervous tension and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu type endless “thank you” messages on his phone.
India, ranked 103rd in the world, held 62nd-ranked Qatar to a goalless draw to earn their first point of the group after they had narrowly succumbed to a 1-2 defeat against Oman in Guwahati.
On the face of it, it was just a point and a draw bereft of any goals. But for the Indian team, it smelled like victory and probably more than that in ways more than one.
Since taking over from Stephen Constantine as the head coach of the Indian team, Croatian Igor Stimac tried to find the right balance in the team and blooded a number of youngsters, thus compromising on the result. Stimac’s five-match-old stint was unremarkable with a lone victory, three defeats and a draw going into the qualifiers.
But India got their mojo back against Oman as Chhetri found the back of the net in the first half. But like it has been for the last few games, India frittered the advantage in the last 10 minutes and leaked two goals.
The backline was under the cosh for slack defending in the last few games and throwing away healthy leads. Against Qatar, who were coming off a magical run in 2019 since winning the Asian Cup, the task was going to be all the more difficult.
But while Gurpreet played the match of his life in an India shirt, making saves after saves with his positioning under the bar top notch, the centre-backs Sandesh Jhinghan and Adil Khan displayed their aerial prowess during clearances. The duo also made vital interceptions and last-ditch tackles to negate the threat of striker Almoez Ali.
Full backs Rahul Bheke and Mandar Rao Desai were under the pump initially but grew into the game with every passing minute.
Among his countless saves, stand-in skipper Gurpreet’s one-handed save off Qatar left-back Abdelkarem Hassan in the dying minutes of the first half stood out. In the second period, Qatar coached by Felix Sanchez threw the kitchen-sink at India but Stimac’s boys — sans Chhetri who was indisposed — showed they had learnt from their mistakes of conceding late and held firm for a famous 0-0 draw.
“I was cribbing and ill, but the moment the game (started), I was screaming the entire 90 minutes.”
“I told someone that we only got one point to show (for our efforts) but it just changed everything for us. Now when we come to the camp, it will be a different team, with the confidence of knowing what you can do if you train well,” Chhetri told ESPN.
It’s not always about the result, as Stimac has been showing since he took over as India lost the Kings’ Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. It was about preparing a young team that could fight against taller opponents.
“We have been working on the mindset in the last few months. It’s all about the mindset – If you get it right, you can achieve great things.
“We have been working on the mindset in the last few months. It’s all about the mindset – If you get it right, you can achieve great things,” Stimac had said after the game.
India even got two chances in the second half when the skilful Sahal Abdul Samad and pacy Udanta Singh came close to scoring.
Spain and Barcelona midfielder Xavi, who coaches in Qatar now and is a big reason why Qatar play the Barcelona way, had his heart in his mouth. Indians were giving him a tough time, Qatar were made to sweat in their own lair and after the final whistle, the crescendo reached beyond the scoreline and reverberated across the Indian football arena back home.
India might still not be able to qualify for Qatar 2022 as they get ready to take on Bangladesh in Kolkata on October 15, but that they are walking the talk was evident against Qatar.