FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifier: Familiar script befalls India and Chhetri’s farewell in goalless draw vs Kuwait

India and Kuwait settled for a 0-0 draw in the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifier, in what was Sunil Chhetri’s final game in international colors.

Published : Jun 06, 2024 21:02 IST , KOLKATA - 4 MINS READ

We have seen this script before. When it matters the most, the Indian men’s football team falls short. On Thursday, India squandered another great opportunity in its bid for the FIFA World Cup third-round qualification after a tame goalless draw against Kuwait at the Salt Lake Stadium.

India is now winless in seven matches and hasn’t scored a goal from open play in 645 minutes. Only a miracle of epic proportions can now save India as it travels to Qatar next in the final game. And it will have to do so without Sunil Chhetri, whose 19-year-long India career came to an anticlimatic end. There was no perfect send-off for India’s no. 11. As the final whistle cut through the sky, Chhetri looked on exasperated with his hands on his hips. He had run his run. There was nothing more to give.

Thousands had made their way towards the gates as early as 4.30 pm, eagerly anticipating an India victory and giving a fitting send-off to their legendary captain, Chhetri. One couldn’t spot any other India replica shirt other than with the name ‘Chhetri’ and the number ‘11’ on the back. They got their first glimpse of the all-time Indian top-scorer in the pre-match warm-up and a loud roar came out from the stands. As the players made their way to the stands, the Indian fans unfurled a banner which depicted Chhetri carrying India on the global stage. But, there was no one to take Chhetri through to the swansong his career deserved.

ALSO READ: India vs Kuwait, LIVE points table: FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifiers standings after Sunil Chhetri’s last match

The emotions were expectantly high on the night and it played a part in India’s tepid start to the game. Igor Stimac and Chhetri had cautioned about it but it still didn’t stop the players from being frozen under the weight of expectations. Passes were misplaced or overhit, simple back-passes were timed wrong and even throw-ins went wrong. Nikhil Poojary didn’t seem to want to do anything with the ball for the first 30 minutes.

Stimac’s strange selection, too, didn’t help his team’s chances. He opted for another all-out 4-4-2 attacking line-up with a physically limited midfield pivot of Anirudh Thapa and Suresh Singh. The Croatian also made three changes from the defeat to Afghanistan with left-back Jay Gupta making his debut and Sahal Abdul Samad playing behind Chhetri.

Indian centre-backs Anwar Ali and Rahul Bheke, in particular, struggled to cope with the high balls aimed towards Youseff Al Sulaiman and Faisal Alharbi. Al Sulaiman won nearly every aerial challenge to bring in the attacking players Alharbi and Mohammad Dammam into play.

Kuwait could have easily gotten itself on the scoresheet in the fourth minute but for Gurpreet Singh Sandhu closing down Mohammad Daham to block his shot from close range. If not for Gurpreet’s saves, India’s morale would have taken a big beating.

Kuwait had superiority in midfield and possession. While the away side pressed forward and played the ball around the Indian half, the gap between India’s defenders and midfielders meant India struggled to move the ball forward.

The only time India looked threatening was when the defenders swiftly moved the ball down the flanks to find Lallianzuala Chhangte and Liston Colaco’s runs down the channel. First-time crosses from the flanks caused problems for the Kuwaiti defence with Hasan Alanezi and Khaled Ibrahim making vital interceptions.

Thapa, who had a forgettable half, was rightly hooked at the start of the second half. Brandon Fernandes, who came on in his place, with one of his first touches set up fellow substitute Rahim Ali with a pass behind Kuwait’s defensive line. Rahim brought it down on his run but Sulaiman Abdulghaffor saved his low finish. Rahim moved up top, while Chhetri, who struggled to have any impact in the first half, dropped into the No. 10 role.

ALSO READ: Can India qualify for the FIFA World Cup 2026 after draw against Kuwait in Sunil Chhetri’s last match?

Just before that, Gurpreet made another big save, right after the re-start when a crossfield ball into the box found an unmarked Alharbi, whose volleyed effort needed a strong one-handed block from the shot-stopper.

Stimac then made more changes. Manvir Singh came on, Chhangte moved to the left, and Chhetri moved up top again. Another debut was handed to Edmund Lalrindika, the first time in five years an I-League player was playing for the national team, but he couldn’t have any impact too. Whatever India threw, it all came to nothing.

Even the much-vaunted Kolkata crowd couldn’t do more to push this team forward. The cheers gave way to moans, before one last roar in the seven added minutes which, too, went without any real threat of a goal from either side.

The silence then gave way to appreciation for Chhetri, who, despite the undesirable result, walked around the famous grass, where he had started his professional career in 2002, to soak in the adulation for the last time in national colours.

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