How Stimac stirred Indian team to play well against Qatar

Key players like Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu revealed how the gesture of the coach stirred the players to do well against Qatar.

A surprise dinner outing after the defeat against Oman followed by a pep talk by head coach Igor Stimac lifted the spirit of the players to an extent that they dished out India’s best performances in recent times -- a draw with mighty Qatar in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match -- exactly a year ago.

Key players like defender Sandesh Jhingan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu revealed how the gesture of the coach stirred the players to do well against Qatar.

On September 10 last year, India held the reigning Asian champion Qatar to a memorable goal-less draw in Doha.

Five days prior to the game, India lost 1-2 in Guwahati to Oman -- conceding twice in the last 10 minutes after taking the lead through skipper Sunil Chhetri in the first half.

“The coach told us he wants to take us out for dinner (after game against Oman) and it came as a slight surprise to us. Looking back at it now I can say for sure that it had a very important impact on the whole team,” Sandhu was quoted as saying by the official website of All India Football Federation.

“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,” he added.

Central defender Jhingan, who was conferred with the Arjuna Award last month, recalled the difference in the team’s mentality after the dinner outing and said that there was a “complete mood change”.

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“When we got on to the bus to go to the restaurant, our frame of mind was still 50-50. The 1-2 loss to Oman was still playing on our mind. But when we got on the bus to go back to the hotel, everyone had a smile on their face and the determination to succeed against Qatar. There was a complete mood change after the dinner,” he said.

Stimac then called the players together for a few words as he talked about how “proud” he was of the way they had played.

Looking back at the impact of the speech, Jhingan said it stirred all the players and gave them “great confidence” ahead of the Qatar game.

“The coach has always been constructive in his criticism with us. After dinner, I was pleasantly surprised by the way he spoke. He was full of appreciation and praise for the players.

“He told us ‘I am proud of you and the way you played’. Those 5-10 minutes were just him appreciating us and how happy he is to see us starting to play the way he wants us to.

“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. When I think of the whole experience now, I feel lucky that I am a part of this highly talented group.”

Gurpreet, who made 11 saves in the game against Qatar, said the speech and dinner were timed perfectly.

“Our coach has played at the highest level and has been coaching for so many years at the top level. He knows how to motivate players and encourage them, and pick the right moments to do so. His presence brings a lot of confidence and positivity in the team,” he said.

My most memorable game - Chhetri

India captain Sunil Chhetri says the match that stood out for him in his illustrious career was the one in which he could not feature - the goalless draw against Asian champion Qatar in a World Cup Qualifier. On this day last year, India held the 2022 World Cup host Qatar to a creditable draw in Doha.

Chhetri, who missed the match due to fever, said he tried his best but his body did not allow him to even make it to the stadium, leaving him to watch the game on TV in his hotel room. “I would a thousand times prefer to be on the pitch helping my team than be a spectator from outside. 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 for www.the-aiff.com.

India entered the match as the underdog but shocked the fancied home team with its spirited showing. And the visiting team’s best player, who is currently the second highest goal-sorer in international football among active players, missed every bit of the action.

‘Memory to cherish’

“At last, though, 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. It is not every day that you hold the best side in Asia to a clean sheet in their own den - a team that scored against every other Asian opposition that year. Of all the matches I have been a part of over the years, this stands out right up there with the best.”

Though Chhetri has been part of a few triumphs with the national team, he feels they don’t come close to matching the draw against Qatar. “One year on from the result, I still find it hard to recall how many times I have felt the way I felt that that night in Doha. I couldn’t be on the pitch with my fellow Blue Tigers but the way they played and the heart they showed, they gave me a memory to cherish for a lifetime.”

- PTI

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