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”.
“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.
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