Calls keep on coming, the phone just doesn’t stop ringing. NRIs based in Doha stay desperate to meet and greet the Blue Tigers. But the bio bubble is in place, playing spoilsport to all aspirations. Nevertheless, requests flow.
A day prior to India’s FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Qualifiers, also the preliminary qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023, the Blue Tigers, all in an effort to make up for lost time, press hard on the lush green. The last time India played Asian champions Qatar, it ended goalless – one of the most significant results ever achieved in recent times in Indian Football.
“The situation was different then. The situation is different now,” goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who had captained India on that day besides putting in an inspiring performance, quips. “We had headed into Doha after a longish camp. The tempo was exceptionally high despite the defeat against Oman in the previous match. In the past few days in Doha we have picked ourselves up besides getting ready for not just Qatar, but the two other matches which are to follow,” he adds.
The Blue Tigers landed in Doha on May 19 and began their training sessions from May 21. The camp was earlier scheduled to be held in Kolkata from May 2, but owing to the pandemic, it had to be cancelled. The pandemic even robbed India of friendly matches in Dubai.
The day begins early in Doha. At 5.15 am there’s bright sunlight, the decibels of the speeding rubber on the tarmac increase with every minute. The mercury rises to 45 degrees and more during the day. However, the evenings are significantly pleasant – the cool breeze blowing across the Qatari capital comes as a solace.
The team news states that midfielder Rowllin Borges has suffered a hamstring injury, and remains doubtful. The rest fight it hard to get into the final 23. The tournament regulations do allow a new 23 to be registered for every match.
At the official hotel, a horde of volunteers across multiple nationalities enquire as to where Sunil Chhetri is. The bio bubble and social distancing prohibits them from walking up and taking a selfie. They stay content watching him from a distance.
The last time Sunil was here, he was confined to the hotel room, a viral fever prohibited him from even attending a practice session, and even traveling to the stadium on matchday.
This time, he is omnipresent – leading the warm-ups and the gym sessions with great gusto, running up to have talks with Manvir, Gurpreet, Sandesh, and others, besides being engaged with Head Coach Igor Stimac for discussions. Post practice, he even prefers to pose with the juniors for a photo session.
“Qatar are one of the top teams in Asia,” Sunil maintains. “They have had some decent results against top European and South American teams in the recent past. The last time we took a point against them makes us confident as a team. We understand that they will come out all guns blazing at us, and we need to stick together as a team,” he expresses.
For the record, since 2018 Qatar have won 21 of the 35 matches played, with six draws, and eight losses, and sit atop Group E at the moment with 15 points from six games.
The return leg was supposed to be India’s home match. But owing to the pandemic situation, all the remaining matches involving all the five teams in Group E are now being played in Doha at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium.
Head Coach Igor Stimac is tireless. He understands the significance of these three matches, and is aware of the commitment of his boys. “I reiterate, they are all good professionals, and I don’t have much of a task in keeping them motivated,” he avers. “The boys have been working hard with full commitment on the training pitch. They know that they are representing their country, and they will do everything possible to defend the India colours.”
At the hotel lobby, members of the Afghanistan team support staff exchange pleasantries, and enquire about the current age of the Indian squad. “It’s such a young squad you have,” they say in unison. “Very young squad, such young boys.”
“We have not played to our potential. It’s time to raise our hand and play the way we want to. Nothing is easy in International football. But you need to do it yourself,” Sandesh Jhingan smiles before boarding the team bus.
The kick-off on June 3 (Thursday) is at IST 10.30 pm, and all of India’s matches will be telecast live in India on the Star Sports Network and be streamed on Disney Hotstar and Jio TV.
(Nilanjan Datta / AIFF Media)