Sunil Chhetri’s face, which looked like thunder, said it best. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had just sidled up next to him to commiserate after India’s loss against the United Arab Emirates in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, and the skipper on the night just turned his face away. He knew that the Blue Tigers had missed an opportunity to put a game past the host nation, and India really could have been out of sight if they had taken their chances, especially in the first half.
UAE are Asian football royalty. With a World Cup appearance to show for at Italia 1990, they finished the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in third place and have been in and around the latter stages of continental competition and World Cup qualification for decades. As impressive as the win against Thailand was, the ASEAN country has only made strides in recent years and their professional league started in 1996, the same year India went semi-professional with the National Football League. The UAE Arabian Gulf League has been in existence since 1973 and was ranked first in AFC’s Club Competitions Ranking as recently as 2017.
For India to go toe-to-toe with such a formidable opponent and come out swinging was beyond the wildest dreams of even the most ardent supporter. Our expectation in recent years has been to come out of games against the best teams in Asia with some pride intact, which usually meant keeping their goal count to the minimum. Chhetri was not supposed to look annoyed at the end of proceedings, hands on hips. Our lot has been to slink back into the dressing room, until the next defeat inevitably came around.
Notwithstanding the heartbreaking loss to Bahrain, a team that was one playoff win away from the 2010 World Cup, India have surprised all observers. Except themselves, from the looks of it. This side came into this tournament expecting to do well, and that attitude is a marked departure from the Indian teams preceding it. Doing the same things over and over again in previous years had, expectedly, given the same results. However, since the advent of the Indian Super League in 2014, a lot has changed in Indian football with respect to the identification of talent, coaching, tactics and fitness. Most importantly, there seems to be some semblance of a plan around growing the game in the country and improving the fortunes of national sides at all levels.
Erik Paartalu, Chhetri’s team-mate at Bengaluru, mentioned in a studio appearance that the Asian Cup was all that Sunil had spoken about for a year and one suspects that this was true for most members of the national side. Such long-term focus and obsession with making a mark on the big stage inevitably helped and the team arrived in the UAE in peak physical condition and a plan that centered around the team’s strengths. India ceded possession in all three games and focused on tireless running, resolute defending and providing a threat on the counter.
India’s second goal against Thailand encapsulated that approach perfectly. Anirudh Thapa dropped deep to assist his full-back, Pritam Kotal, and hustled the ball off Chanathip Songkrasin. His ball forward fell kindly for Chhetri to hook forward along the byline and Udanta Singh turned on the after-burners to beat the man covering him and tuck the ball to Ashique Kuruniyan. He turned it onto the path of the onrushing Chhetri to guide past a hapless keeper. It was a brilliant team goal and set India on the path to achieving a historic victory, their first in the tournament in 55 years.
More victories eluded them, and obvious weaknesses came to the fore in the final game against Bahrain, but there was no mistaking that the Blue Tigers have bridged the gap in quality to a good extent. India are pushovers no more and have arrived on the Asian stage.