The final whistle went off and the Indians embraced one another with childlike joy. For these eleven men had just scripted a phenomenal victory over Thailand and their first win in the AFC Asian Cup since 1964.
Sunil Chhetri, who steered India to the win, was a picture of calm. He let the moment sink in, looked up to the sky and then broke into a wide smile. He exchanged pleasantries with the officials and the Thai players and headed to the far side of the pitch where the travelling Indian fans greeted him with a rousing round of Viking claps.
Chhetri, the oldest man on the pitch, knows what it takes to compete at this level. The only member of the team who was part of the 2011 campaign, where they lost all three matches, he understands the magnitude of the result and cherishes it.
“This is one of the best results of my career. The Asian Cup is like the World Cup for us. India is making baby steps forward and to come here and make an account for ourselves is paramount for me and my country. I hope that no matter how many games we play here, we show that we are improving. In world football you don't suddenly jump numbers or become a top team, you have to make gradual jumps and that's what we are doing,” he said post the game.
While Chhetri looks ahead and at the bigger picture, on the other hand are two youngsters who revelled in what was the biggest match of their careers. Ashique Kuruniyan, picked over Jeje Lapekhlua and Balwant Singh, had huge shoes to fill. And he did so in convincing fashion.
“It’s a great feeling, I can’t put it in words. To be honest, I didn’t expect to start the first game at the Asian Cup, but I'm grateful that I was given this opportunity. The coach told me what he expected from me and everyone on the side, be it Sunil bhai, Sandesh bhai or Anas bhai ensured that I was in the right frame of mind going into the game. That helped a lot,” he says, still buzzing from the win.
Then there is the youngest player in the squad – Anirudh Thapa – who scored India's fourth goal of the night with a sublime chip. The last time India played, Thapa was 13 years old and was still in school. He remembers watching a bit of the game on the telly but never imagined that eight years down the line, he'd don the national jersey, let alone get on the scoresheet.
Talking about his goal, he says, “My task was to run up and down. When Sunil bhai played it to Udanta bhai, I had a one percent chance of a rebound and I took the chance. Udanta played it to me and I saw keeper and both players going towards the right so I chipped it and it went right in.”
“I usually like to assist players and so this is a very big thing for me,” he says, grinning from ear-to-ear.
Chhetri is asked one last question as he heads into the team bus. "We saw you limping after the game, are you alright?" His reply is sharp. “I just got a knock. But I'll play the UAE game even if I have to on one leg.”
The Indians had a relatively easy day on Monday, with only the substitutes attending the morning training session. The starting XI had a recovery session in the swimming pool. Skipper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had taken time out to visit the famed Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque early in the day. The side will next train at 6pm local time on Tuesday.
India will hope its talisman Chhetri recovers in time as the next big challenge arrives in the form of United Arab Emirates on January 10. A win would all but seal India's progression to the knockouts, which would be a historic first for the Blue Tigers.
- I-League 2023-24 points table LIVE: Sreenidi Deccan on top tied with Mohammedan Sporting Club, I-League standings
- U Mumba vs UP Yoddhas LIVE Score, Pro Kabaddi League 2023: Zafardanesh, Guman give consolidate lead for Mumba: UM 19-14 UPY
- Hyderabad FC vs Mohun Bagan SG LIVE score and updates, HFC 0-1 MBSG ISL 2023-24, Hamill scores opening goal for Mohun Bagan
- EURO 2024 draw: All you need to know about European Championship draw, pots, live streaming info
- EURO 2024 Draw live Updates: Final groups for European Championship to be decided, live streaming info