Sunil Chhetri watched on from his hotel room in Doha as his colleagues battled Qatar at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium. He was not, he admitted, the calmest of supporters.
With every save, every blocked Qatari shot, every Indian counter-attack, and every additional second on the clock, his nerves were fraying. When the final whistle went, he simply erupted.
“I was screaming. I lost my voice. The hotel people came up to ask what happened. I said, ‘Get lost.’ I didn't know what I was saying. I didn't know what I was doing. I was just so happy and proud to be a part of that team. Somebody asked me 'Who played well?', and I took 14 names. They were all so good,” he said, as Bengaluru FC began training for the new season here on Friday.
Laid low by a virus, Chhetri sat out India’s gallant draw with Qatar in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers earlier this week. The result may have earned the side only a single point, but it was worth a whole lot more to Indian football, he felt.
“We’ve got only one point to show. But it has changed everything for us. Now when we return to the camp, we're a different team. When you know that is how much you are capable of...it just gives you so much confidence.
“After the 80th minute, they were desperate and we had three or four counter-attacks. If the game had gone on for 10 more minutes, trust me, we would have scored. I saw Xavi (former Spain and Barcelona midfield legend and current Al Sadd coach) biting his fingernails. And I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is really nice.’”
Chhetri had stayed away from sugar for a long time but that evening, he just let go. “I had two big pieces of cake, some kheer,” he says. “I just devoured everything.”
'Performance a great relief'
The man central to this was goalkeeper Gurpreet Sandhu, who took over captaincy duties from Chhetri and led by example with a string of high-class saves to deny Qatar.
“What I have learnt in Chhetri in these years is that he is the kind of guy who will do his job perfectly and by seeing him perform others would try and replicate it,” Gurpreet said. “That is what I try to do whenever I get the responsibility. I had to do my job well first. It won’t help the other players if a senior player is not performing up to the mark.
"Personally, the performance brought great relief and was deeply satisfying," Gurpreet said. “I wanted to get a clean sheet. It had been a while and this was my first clean sheet with the national team this year. So [I am] very happy about that.
“But it wasn’t just me on the pitch. There were ten other people who gave their hearts out. I watched the game again twice over. I could see the amount of effort every single player put. To get rewarded like that was very, very satisfying. My teammates deserved it for the kind of effort they put for 90-95 minutes.”
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