SHARJAH: Eight years back on January 14, 2011 in the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011 India had gone down fighting against Bahrain 2-5.
Eight years on, India gear up to take on Bahrain on the same day — where a victory will ensure Sunil Chhetri and the boys a qualification into the Round of 16, an achievement which is bound to speak wonders for Indian Football.
Chhetri, currently the second-highest goal scorer in International Football among active players at the moment, had scored India’s second goal in that match eight years back. Little wonder, with all the maturity gained over the last eight years, Chhetri will aim to score again against Bahrain when the two teams meet tomorrow (January 14, 20190).
Chhetri shook his head. “It doesn’t matter who scores as long as we score. It’s a team game,” he quipped. “The awareness and interest in football has certainly grown in India. Everyone who is associated with football is responsible for it. But I also want to say that it’s a very small jump which we have taken. We have to keep our heads down and keep working hard,” said Chhetri, a day prior to the Bahrain clash.
“It was an extremely difficult group back then,” he recalled. “We had Australia, South Korea and Bahrain in the group. The only positive, apart from the fact that we played our hearts out was that we scored three goals.”
“The one distinct thing I remember was scoring. Renedy’s great dribbling first, and then his fierce shot from 35 yards hit the bar, and dropped,” he recalled. “Later on, in the replays, we saw that the ball had gone in. But it wasn’t given. Off Renedy’s rebound, Abhishek Yadav hit the bar too, and as it fell to me, I headed it in.”
While India stand on the cusp of qualification, Sunil Chhetri summed the situation perfectly: “We haven’t achieved anything substantial yet. What I want to achieve is to reach the top 10 in Asia and rub shoulders with the best. For that, we have to improve a lot. The first step starts with a result against Bahrain tomorrow.”
Apart from the second-placed finish back in 1964, this is arguably one of the most memorable moments in India’s AFC Asian Cup appearances.
Apart from Chhetri, the sole member to have a taste of the 2011 edition was Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. But that time, with ‘Spiderman’ making the mark, Gurpreet had watched from the bench.
“I remember everyone was very calm the before the Bahrain game. We believed that we could get a result from that game. We even managed to score a couple of goals. But unfortunately, we ended up losing,” the custodian said.
“Eight years down the line we are back in the Asian Cup playing Bahrain again. Things are different, the teams are different. But we are in a better situation,” says Gurpreet.
While the likes of Chhetri and Gurpreet were sweating it off in Doha there was another crop of young guns, who at that point, were merely dreaming of greater things to come in their lives.
“I remember I had tears in my eyes that day, and made one of those crazy promises that you make as a kid – I’m going to play for India one day and bring glory. But here I am today, ready to play against them tomorrow,” said central defender Sandesh Jhingan.
“It’s hard to believe, sometimes. Even if God came down and told me to write down my future eight years back, I would not have believed that I would be here, and facing Bahrain on this very day.”
Young defender Subhasish Bose has only broken into the squad some six months ago. However, eight years back, he was just like any other young fan, watching his heroes in action against the best teams in Asia.
And like any other kid, he also yearned to avenge the defeat that was inflicted on his heroes, who had played their hearts out that fateful night.
“I was watching the Bahrain game with my dad. We were both disappointed on losing the match, but now we have the chance to get our revenge for that defeat,” said Bose.