Yes, it was just a friendly match, but for a footballing nation that has very little to show by way of international success, India's 4-1 win over Puerto Rico in Mumbai made for some electric moments.
Of course, everyone knew that beating the 114th ranked team in the world is important when you're ranked 152nd. Which is why the victory was even sweeter, for India came back from a goal down within 10 minutes, when midfielder Jakichand Singh fouled Puerto Rico's Elliot Velez to concede a penalty and pin-drop silence in the stands.
But the crowds knew that one man in blue would deliver. And he did. Football fans have become accustomed to seeing the 32-year-old striker Sunil Chhetri as the nattily-dressed studio commentator who can hold his own against his counterparts from around the world. But on Saturday night, he played the role of striker instead, stamping his authority on the game by scoring one goal and assisting in another to make it 2-1. He even played a part in a third when his free kick hit the goalpost and found the feet of Narayan Das, who scored.
When the euphoria over the win had subsided to reasonable proportion, the coaches spoke.
Will Chhetri go on forever?
Chhetri wasn’t captaining the side as Indian coach Stephen Constantine decided to let goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu have the armband. But, on the field one could see the impact Chhetri has on the team. He laid out the patterns for players like Jeje Lalpekhula and Singh to capitalise on the mistakes made by the Puerto Rican team.
“Sunil is the talisman of this team," said Constantine in the post-match press conference. "He has been scoring goals for the last ten years. I keep teasing him that his time is almost up but he isn’t having that. He says he has another four to five years so look, he keeps himself in great shape. He is the captain of this team and as long as he is fit he plays.”
But wasn't Chhettri's playing position just behind the striker a bit unusual? The coach answered, “For a player of his calibre you have to find a place for him. For me, his place is behind the striker, he has an eye for the goal, he plays it out for the others and he works. However, in certain games I want something different, so I can play him left or right.
Does this win give India real hope?
“Don’t expect us to be successful overnight," said Constantine. "Don’t expect us to qualify for the World Cup. It is not going to happen. We lost seven games in those qualifiers and four of those games we lost 2-1 against much better teams than us. You can’t change things overnight and we are still in the process. Just because we won today that doesn’t mean we are the best team in Asia or we are going to win the World Cup."
But surely beating Puerto Rico is an achievement? Constantine's answer: “They are 38 places above us, so anybody above us is good enough. The qualifiers are in March. That is eight months away, which is a lifetime. Was this game appropriate for us? Absolutely. It gave our boys a chance to play against a South American opposition for the first time. This is why I wanted the team to travel to the United States to begin with. So that we could get games against Guyana, Puerto Rico, Granada, these kind of teams because we learn more from such teams compared to games we play with a smaller nation closer to us.”
But were Puerto Rico at their best?
Puerto Rico arrived in Mumbai after missing a flight, soon after playing two games against the Dominican Republic. The players could well have been jet-lagged. However, Puerto Rico coach David Guillemat said, “If you look around the locker room, that is not an excuse. We came here, we came here prepared.”
But the visitors did have members of their first team missing. “We were missing between four and five players," said Guillemat. But our big match is the Gold Cup qualifier, which begins on October 8 and October 11. For us this was a preparation game for that tournament. We have never been in a Gold Cup and that has been the goal and maybe that is why you don’t see the first team players here because we are evaluating everyone for that process.”
Guillemat admitted to be fooled by India's lowly Fifa ranking. "Sometimes the rankings can be a little bit misleading, given that national teams are in rebuilding processes. We expected a fast team and we expected a technical team. We tried ways to nullify that but we were little bit unlucky. We paid for our mistakes.”
Did cricket capital Mumbai enjoy international football?
Did it ever! It's been 61 years. Count them – 61. The city last hosted an international match in 1955 against the USSR, which India lost 3-0. The attendance at the Andheri Sports Complex football arena was 6,894. Even the coaches were not expecting such a welcome.
Guillemat said, “Not only the crowd, the people of Mumbai have in general been cordial and more than friendly. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. It is important for our players to play in a packed stadium." Added Constantine, "Even though it was around 6,000 to 7,000 people, it felt like 20,000 at times. I hope it is not another 61 years before we have another game here.”
“I love Sunil Chhetri and since he plays for Mumbai City FC in the ISL, I came to watch him play against Puerto Rico,” said a fan.