India look to ride on wave of home support
Chhetri, 35, is the only link between this team and the one that played against Malaysia in November, 2011, the last time an international match was held at the Salt Lake stadium.Updated: Oct 14, 2019 23:57 IST
Even in a career that has seen him score four international goals more than Lionel Messi — a piece of statistic he always reacts to with a wan smile — Sunil Chhetri said the prospect of 50,000 or more lending full-throated support to the India football team would be a first for him.
“Yesterday, our coach (Igor Stimac) asked after practice, ‘how many of us have played for the national team in front of a jam-packed stadium’. And my answer was, ‘I haven’t’. And then, nobody else had any chance. We didn’t have to upload videos asking people to support us because we were told everything has been sold out,” said Chhetri, the India captain ahead of this 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup group E qualifying tie against Bangladesh, here on Monday.
Chhetri, 35, is the only link between this team and the one that played against Malaysia in November, 2011, the last time an international match was held at the Salt Lake stadium, a football cathedral where Messi began his journey as Argentina skipper, Pele came calling and Phil Foden and his band of teenagers won the under-17 World Cup.
On all those occasions — 2011, 2015 and 2017 — Kolkata turned up in numbers expected on Tuesday. But less than 1000 had seen India beat Malaysia 3-2; Chhetri scoring a brace.
The transformation has happened because, “somehow we have woken up all the football dreams in India with our latest games,” said head coach Igor Stimac. Not referring only to the 0-0 away draw to Asian champions Qatar — Bangladesh lost 0-2 to them last week at home – was Stimac’s way of highlighting continuous progress including but not restricted to India’s performance in the qualifiers.
“We have shown that India can play organised, disciplined football. We have shown that we have many young talented players who were led by those experienced like Sunil. And that on our day, we can play against anyone,” said Stimac who began the media interaction by asking in Bangla ‘kemon achen apnara (how are you)?’
Stimac said what makes this tie different from those against Oman, which India led but lost 1-2, and Qatar is that his team was not the favourite in either. “Great to be in one, something that does not happen very often,” he said.
“In Bangladesh, we are behind on facilities; the structure of our league and the structure of our clubs are behind that of India. A lot of our teams don’t have academies; we don’t have players from age-group teams coming through and being coached on a regular basis. We don’t have the same amount of equipment and staff the India team has,” said Jamie Day, Bangladesh’s coach for the past 14 months.
“We have worked really hard to ensure everyone enjoys the game. We are ready to handle the pressure and our expectation is quite clear: we have to win,” said Stimac before his boys meet a neighbourhood team that at 187 is 83 slots below India in the Fifa rankings. “Because winning this game will give us the right to keep dreaming.”
To do that, and notch up their first win of the campaign, Stimac said everyone will have to pull in the same direction. That is how Croatia has achieved football excellence, said Stimac who was part of the 1998 World Cup team that won bronze and whose teammates Davor Suker is the football federation president and Zvonimir Boban Fifa’s deputy secretary-general.
For the third time in as many games, India will miss key players. It was midfielder Amarjit Kiyam against Oman, Chhetri in Qatar and Sandesh Jhingan (injured) and Rowllin Borges (suspended) here. That could mean Anas Edathodika, 32, returning from India retirement.
“He has been doing well in training and it is possible he will play tomorrow,” said Stimac.
Vinit Rai could take Borges’ place in midfield. India could also start with Chhetri, Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh in front with Brandon Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad in midfield.
But as Chhetri said this team is not about individuals.
“The importance of who is going to play is so less in this team,” said Chhetri whose last-minute goal from a free-kick against Bangladesh prevented an early exit for India in the 2013 SAFF Cup.
2014 ended with India six slots behind Bangladesh in the Fifa rankings (165-171). Last August, Dhaka Abahani Limited, formerly known as Abahani Krira Chakra, which finished second in the Bangladesh league, beat top North Korea team 4.25 4-3 in one leg of the AFC Cup Inter-zonal semi-final.
“They are very good in counter-attacks and when teams under-respect opponents, the results are not usually good.
“So, don’t provoke our luck in that manner,” said Stimac.
Stimac is worried about how much time he would get ahead of next month’s away games, to Afghanistan (November 15) and Oman (November 20).
“As it is now, it doesn’t look very promising. We will have to find a way with the ISL and organise a (preparatory) camp,” he said, on Monday. The ISL begins on October 20 and has games till November 10 before resuming on November 23.
Stimac’s predecessor Stephen Constantine had got into a tussle with ISL franchises in 2015 for having to cancel a preparatory camp ahead of World Cup qualifiers against Oman and Turkmenistan because players were not released.
“It seemed the ISL outranked the national team,” he said. India trained three weeks before the Oman and Qatar games and 10 days prior to Tuesday’s match.