Goals scored: 25, goals conceded: 1.
When Igor Stimac’s India traveled to Doha to face Asian champions Qatar in September 2019, that was the cumulative score of the Asian champions that year against Asian opposition.
Feliz Sanchez’s men were on a rampage, demolishing anything and everything that was in their path in Asia. They had also played the Copa America as a guest entrant and held Paraguay to a draw and given Brazil and Argentina a run for their money. Qatar were, unarguably, one of the best Asian teams in the world.
India, on the other hand, were coming on the back of morale crushing 2-1 loss to Oman in their first match of the 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifiers. Having led the game for 80 minutes, two lapses of concentration had cost India a game that they had deservedly led for most parts.
Against Qatar, nobody gave them any hope and rightly so. The gulf nation had bossed the continental championships where India had failed to clear the group stage. The gap between the two teams was just too wide.
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On the eve of the match, India suffered a body blow to their slim hopes of getting anything out of the contest. Captain Sunil Chhetri, down with fever, was set to miss the match. Was the game over even before it began? It seemed so.
The team had to face the deadliest attack in Asian football but they were still hurting from the Oman loss. There was very little time between the two matches.
Coach Igor Stimac realised that it could go from bad to worse and decided to act. After reaching Qatar, he took the team out for dinner, a move that surprised many members of the squad. After the meal, he delivered a speech that turned the mood in the Indian camp.
“Coming in from the previous match against Oman, we were still upset and angry about that result. But after the team dinner, the tide had completely turned and all of us were now completely focused on the task ahead of us,” Gurpreet Singh Sandhu told AIFF recalling the build-up to the game.
“After dinner, I was pleasantly surprised by the way he (Stimac) spoke. He was full of appreciation and praise for the players. Nobody knew that this dinner and speech would have such an impact. That’s the power of words for you. At those moments, those words gave us great confidence,” Sandesh Jhingan added.
With Chhetri back in the hotel, India stepped out on the pitch with a huge task on hands. The game plan was simple. Keep it tight at the back and keep the concentration levels high. The rest would then be down to Qatar’s ability and a bit of luck.
As expected the hosts ramped up the pressure from the outset. India sat back in a compact shape. Sandhu in goal was kept busy, but he stepped up.
Qatar captain Hassan Al-Haydos had two shots early into the match but Sandhu was up to the task, including a brilliant finger-tip save in the 20th minute.
As the hosts failed to score in the first half-hour, a rarity for them in 2019, frustration started creeping into their ranks and India reached the interval unscathed.
A historic result was then still a long way away and perhaps still highly unexpected. India had offered little going forward and keeping the Qataris at bay, who had smashed six goals in their previous match against Afghanistan, was going to be extremely difficult.
India tried to play a bit more in the second half but their endeavours were quickly snuffed out by Qatar who got back in the ascendancy. Perhaps most impressively though, India’s game still had flashes of a passing game instead of just hoofing the ball clear.
Sandhu kept getting busier and somehow, heroically at times, kept India on parity. As the game inched towards the final whistle, Qatar’s anxiety grew, so did India’s resolve. The visitors started finding more joy on counter-attacks and Udanta Singh even came close to winning it in the dying minutes.
The visitors were helped by the hosts’ profligacy in front of the goal, but they held on for an incredible, historic point away from home, thus becoming the first Asian team in 2019 to keep a clean sheet against Qatar.
India joined an illustrious company that included Brazil, Argentina and Colombia in teams who had stopped Qatar from scoring in 2019.
It was the first time that India had avoided defeat against a reigning Asian champion.
The players were ecstatic. While it was just a draw, just another point, it felt a lot more. It felt like a win, a validation of the fact that India on their day can give even the best team in Asia a run for their money.
“I was very emotional after the game. Before the match, we read predictions of 3-0, 5-0 and even 7-0 in Qatar’s favour. But to be able to work so hard and hold them to a draw was surreal,” Sandhu said.
“Each and every player showed great character. All-in-all, after the game we thought that we have the strength to compete against the best. We have to play together, follow the game plan and execute it correctly,” added Adil Khan who had an inspired game at centre-back.
For Chhetri who was watching the game back in his hotel room, every minute felt like an hour.
“Towards the end, both sides started pushing aggressively for the go-ahead goal, even my volume levels went up and I was screaming like crazy. The tension was too much to take!” Chhetri wrote in a column on the AIFF website celebrating the result’s first anniversary.
“The referee blew the final whistle and I was just overcome with emotions. As the boys celebrated with the fans, I was jumping for joy in my room. Of all the matches I have been a part of over the years, this stands out right up there with the best,” he added.
For India, that game didn’t change their footballing fortunes in one night. The struggles since that match only made it even more clear.
But it provided them with a reference point of what they are capable of if they got their act together.
Indian football, under Igor Stimac, may or may not reach the heights many expected when the much-fancied Croatian took over the reins in May 2019, but no one can take away the Qatar result from him and his team. For years, until India make securing such results a habit, this one will be cherished.