Thunderous applause, vociferous chants and hundreds of selfies were the order of the day as the Blue Tigers were welcomed at the Hamad International Airport on Saturday by a boisterous set of NRI supporters.
Soaking in the adulation was young Ashique Kuruniyan, who has always been a favourite among fans, and only added to his burgeoning reputation after a stellar show against Oman.
“The welcome at the airport was unbelievable. It’s incredible that irrespective of where we play, we always have a great set of fans always cheering for us and it really pushes us that one step further,” Ashique reflected.
After the reception, the Blue Tigers got straight to business as they began training for the upcoming encounter against hosts Qatar on Tuesday — a vital fixture in their qualifying campaign.
Summing up the mood in the side, Ashique quipped: “The entire team is focussed on the job at hand. Qatar are the champions of Asia for a reason but we will do everything we can to push them and stick to our plans. Having spent a day travelling, we had a great first session in Doha yesterday to gear up for the game.”
“The Head Coach (Igor Stimac) is really pushing us a lot and motivating us to keep improving. He has instilled great belief in the team and has told us that we have to play without fear. No opponent is unbeatable and we will carry the same confidence with us against Qatar.”
Stimac took charge of the Blue Tigers in May but it was only last month that he could call up the nippy Ashique for National duty, with the winger having suffered a knee injury that left his future in doubt.
“When my name was included in the probables for the camp in Goa, it was a huge boost for me. I met the coach for the first time and he motivated me a lot saying that injuries are a part of the game. We had a great camp there and I can see that all the players are happy and united, and that the team is improving steadily.”
The road to recovery was an arduous one for Ashique as well. “I was recovering at home and it was taking time. I had a month’s rest and then used to practice every morning on the field, followed by gym sessions in the evening. It was a tough process but I was pushing myself as much as possible,” he stated.
The efforts of the 22-year-old did not go in vain as he marked his return with a splendid show in Guwahati. It was an emotional moment for the fleet-footed youngster, who said, “Against Oman, there was only one thing on my mind – I have to play like it is the last game of my life. After the injury, I never thought I will get my chance to come back so early and so, I was motivated to leave everything out on the pitch.”
The match between India and Qatar will take place at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on Tuesday (September 10, 2019) and will kick-off at 10 PM IST.