Draw in Doha, football’s giant leap in India
For one night, India headlined Asia’s World Cup qualifiers. For one night, the nickname ‘Blue Tigers’ didn’t seem an artificial construct. For one night, India showed that one quality in abundance they have long been unable to: belief.
Belief. You can’t have enough of it if you, ranked 103rd in the world, want to take something out of a game against Asian champions who are 62nd; a team that cruised past the continent’s heavyweights in the last Asian Cup; a team with players groomed in Europe and at a Qatar academy whose facilities are so good that top European clubs use them every winter.
Belief is what coursed through Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the India captain standing in for the indisposed Sunil Chhetri. Qatar fired 27 shots on goal, some of which the 1.98m goalkeeper had to swoop low to conquer; for a 76th minute save, Sandhu, his line of sight blocked by his defenders, relied on his sixth sense.
But this wasn’t a Sandhu versus Qatar contest. Sandhu led from the back, true, but India got the 0-0 result on Tuesday because as a team they blocked every punch and then prepared to receive the next blow confident they could absorb that too.
With Xavi, the former Barcelona and Spain midfield maestro, in the stands at the Jassim bin Hamad stadium, home to Al-Sadd where he now plays, India put in a defensive shift that was daring and disciplined in equal measure.
It was the only way to shut the barn door on a Qatar hurricane, especially without Chhetri who has 72 goals from 112 internationals. Sahal Abdul Samad reined in his love of dribbling, Udanta Singh curbed his tendency to fly down the wing, medios Anirudh Thapa and Rowllin Borges protected the back four where Sandesh Jhingan and Adil Khan were first among equals. Even Manvir Singh, Chhetri’s replacement, fell back so that India could deny Qatar a clear look on goal. The number of long-rangers Qatar tried was proof of that.
They can defend
“There has been a lot of talk about India’s defensive frailties. Yesterday, they showed they can defend,” said former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia on Wednesday.
And once they got the ball, India played it out, often with three, four passes from the deep. “That was because of the belief the players had in the way the coach wants them to play. It would have been easy to hoof the ball but that would have had Qatar coming back at them immediately,” said former international Renedy Singh.
By passing their way out of trouble, India showed confidence against Asia’s best team in its own den. Qatar had possession but could rarely run through the lines. And when they did, they ran into a wall called Sandhu.
It also showed India had learnt lessons well from the defeat against Oman. “We were the better team in the first half against Oman,” said Renedy. Things went pear-shaped from around the 70-minute mark in Guwahati on Thursday when India kept giving the ball away and struggled to regroup.
One of the Best ever
Bhutia and Renedy said this was one of India’s best performances ever because it came against a team that before Tuesday hadn’t scored against only Brazil, Argentina and Colombia this year; one unbeaten in Asia since last December; one that played the last Copa America and will host the World Cup in 2022.
Time will tell whether this is another false dawn --- beating the UAE 1-0 at home, a hattrick of Nehru Cup triumphs, winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup being some of the others --- but this result has been some time coming.
Under Stephen Constantine, India reached their second highest Fifa ranking of 96 from 171. Last year, they drew 0-0 away to China, a result that nearly cost Marcelo Lippi his job. A 1-2 defeat away to Jordan was creditable because Chhetri was injured and half the team unable to make it due to flight disruptions in Kuwait.
The 4-1 rout of Thailand in the Asian Cup cost Milovan Rajevac, who had coached Ghana to the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals, his job. India gave UAE a scare and bowed out of the Asian Cup after Bahrain converted a late penalty. Constantine left, Igor Stimac came in but India carried this self-belief into notching up another win against Thailand in the King’s Cup.
Also, the win against UAE and the Challenge Cup triumph came with teams that were close to their best. Khalid Jamil didn’t play after 2001, 2004 was when Jules Alberto and Jo Paul Anchery last represented India and IM Vijayan quit international football in 2003. The team of 2008 focused on the Asian Cup after which many including Bhutia retired. Barring Chhetri, for this young bunch, 2023 Asian Cup will be another step in their progression.
“This result has raised expectations. India also showed yesterday that they need to do some work when they are going forward. Bangladesh (India’s next opponents, in Kolkata on October 15) and Afghanistan won’t be easy but it is a good sign that we are hoping the India team would do well,” said Renedy.