From the outside, the Indian men’s team making the round of 16 of the Asian Games after a 1-1 draw to Myanmar, a team ranked 59 places below it, seemed like the bare minimum.
But if one has kept up with the ins and outs of the Indian football caravan over the last two weeks, the result, which took the team into the pre-quarterfinals as group runner-up, might seem remarkable.
This group of players, many of whom haven’t played with each other and were put together three days before their opening game, haven’t had a single training session since they set foot in the country.
AS IT HAPPENED: India vs Myanmar football, Asian Games Highlights
Among the group of 21, 17 players and the backroom staff arrived less than 24 hours before the match against China and played three games in the space of five days, making recovery hard on their bodies.
Defender Sandesh Jhingan, who has been battling jetlag, finally got a good night’s sleep on Saturday before turning up for his third successive full 90 minutes in the game against Myanmar at the Xiaoshan Sports Center Stadium.
Skipper Sunil Chhetri, who scored India’s goal from the spot, bemoaned the lack of integration among the players.
“We have never played together, we haven’t trained, it’s been three games in five days and it hasn’t been easy. No masseur, no one. Just six-seven staff members. I’m not trying to be a crybaby, but it’s just what it is. But the good thing is that whoever is here, all united,” said Chhetri.
In fact, it was Chhetri and Jhingan – aside from their primary duties, who were running the coaching from the pitch, instructing each teammate on where to be, who to press, and what passes to make.
At the Xiaoshan Stadium, Chhetri was a captain-striker-midfielder-coach all rolled into one. While he is no more a spring chicken, he is still always on the move, scanning what’s around him with a quick glance over his shoulder and keeping track of who’s where. As a fellow player, one wouldn’t want to not heed his advice.
Aniket Jadhav, who came on in the second half and played with Chhetri for the first time, was struggling to come to grips with the flow of the game.
“Press him, press him!” Chhetri yelled at the 23-year-old forward for not closing down his man on the right side. Five minutes later, Aniket’s absent-mindedness once again caught Chhetri’s eye and this time his orders were expletive-laden.
India head coach Igor Stimac was insistent on getting Chhetri, Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu on board, but managed only two of them.
The inexperienced U-24 players needed two of the most senior-most heads, who commanded respect, to show them the way. The pair have a combined 199 senior India caps between them.
Chhetri admitted that he tried to wield his powers of persuasion to get more players to board the flight to Hangzhou but was only successful in securing ‘warrior’ Jhingan’s services.
“He is an absolute warrior. His will to win is second to none. I am guilty of secretly forcing him with different ways to get him here. Because in the end, I realised it was only me and a lot of young kids who haven’t played before, due respect to all of them,” he said.
Jhingan’s presence has helped Chhetri, too, who became a first-time father this month. “We have young kids back home.
“And I thought I was missing my son, but he also desperately misses his daughter. We talk a lot about our kids. Also, because of the age difference, me and him are a little bit more aloof than the rest,” joked Chhetri.
With qualification secured, the 30-year-old Jhingan and the 39-year-old Chhetri have a three-day break to rest their mind and body before the daunting Round-of-16 fixture against Saudi Arabia.
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