To the UAE and back!

While the Indians didn’t advance to the next round of the AFC Asian Cup 2019, they won hearts aplenty.

Sunil Chhetri’s brace against Thailand took him past Lionel Messi and made him the second highest active goalscorer in international football for his country.   -  AP

Diary’s time at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 was quite the fascinating one. From befriending the many expatriate taxidrivers to desperately running at breakneck speeds to catch the last inter-emirate bus to munching down truckloads of falafel and guzzling down bucketloads of black coffee, it was quite a delicious — oops — footballing affair. Burp!

Having witnessed all the group stage games, Diary got a whiff of why the Asian Cup is called the World Cup for Asian nations. The tournament had it all — right from three-time champion Iran dishing out a 5-0 drubbing to Yemen to underdog India thwarting Thailand 4-1 and defending champion Australia eliminating Syria (once again) in dramatic late fashion.

Instructions to Diary ahead of the tournament were clear: you stay until India remains in the competition. India’s opening win left him cocky, almost certain of India’s progression. The 2-0 loss to the UAE served as a minor scare, but there was still hope that the Blue Tigers could weave their magic to advance to the next round. However, all hopes went up in smoke when the side conceded a last-minute penalty against Bahrain to exit the tournament, also telling Diary he had to pack his bags. An Emirates red-eye flight would take him home in three days’ time.

While the Indians didn’t advance to the next round, they won hearts aplenty. Much like Iceland at the World Cup, if you may. Sunil Chhetri’s brace against Thailand took him past Lionel Messi and made him the second highest active goalscorer in international football for his country. The feat saw him make the cover of a local daily the next morning, which depicted him bearing down on a goblin-like Messi. The local journalists couldn’t get enough of him and made it a point to talk about him at each of India’s press conferences, leading former coach Stephen Constantine to call him “India’s Messi”. However, the locals, they struggled to spell his name and the most common rendition of Chhetri was “Sheethry.”

Such was the buzz around Chhetri that some even compared him to UAE great Ismail Matar. Sixteen-year-old Khalid, a volunteer at the Zayed Sports City stadium, is keen on seeing Chhetri don the Al Ain jersey. “He’s the best player on your team, wallah. Maybe he can play in the UAE Pro-League? He should join my favourite team, Al Ain,” he quips.

However, there were also the others who were shocked to know that India plays football. Yacine, a 28-year-old Moroccan, drives one of the many taxis that are stationed outside the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi. On learning that Diary has arrived from India to track the team’s progress, a dumbfounded Yacine asks: “India plays football? When did this happen? When did they become so good? Who is the captain?” he quizzes. When briefed about India’s football structure and the Indian Super League that features the likes of Tim Cahill, he remarks, “Ah, no wonder they are so good.”

Then there is Pakistan’s Hasan Ali, who is gutted that his nation isn’t playing. “Why is Pakistan not here?” he asks with raised eyebrows. He struggles to digest the fact that Pakistan isn’t that good at the sport. When reminded that Pakistan is a lot better at cricket, he appears a lot more at ease. “Haanji, you are right. Cricket is our natural game,” he says with a sheepish grin.

Fans thronged from across Asia to see their nations fight it out among the many swanky and shiny stadiums in the UAE. Among the many fans who sported team jerseys and their national colours was 73-year-old Yusuf, an Iraqi citizen who has lived in Sweden for the past 40 years. Yusuf made the 10-hour plus journey to Zayed Sports City to watch his country play for the first time, a dream come true for him. Iraq midfielder Ali Adnan ensured Yusuf had a memorable experience as his 90th-minute free kick powered his side to a 3-2 win against Vietnam. While the fans poured in, in huge numbers, so did the journalists. Well, for most countries at least. Japan ruled the roost with over 300 reporters, who virtually took up nearly a third of the slots at the media enclosure. On the other end of the spectrum was Turkmenistan, which on a manual count, had a media contingent consisting of a total of zero journalists. India’s ouster gave Diary an opportunity to attend some other big-ticket clashes. This included a high-profile Clasico of the Middle East between Iran and Iraq. The Maktoum Stadium in Dubai was packed to the rafters, and having been allotted a seat hardly 50 yards from the pitch, Diary relished the experience. Though the game ended in a goalless draw, the goosebumps-inducing atmosphere created by the fans was truly staggering.

Another memorable game saw Diary empathise with Syria after it also suffered a last-minute ouster much like India. Syria needed to play out a draw against Australia to advance and the scoreline read 2-2 with four minutes of added time to be played in the second half. Tomas Rogic’s screamer from 30 yards out with a minute left on the clock confined the Syrians to heartbreak, bringing back memories of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers where the Socceroos beat them in similar fashion.

The last group stage game was a tantalising clash of two nations hit by political strife. The game got off on a poor note as the Saudi Arabia fans booed the Qatar national anthem, but that didn’t seem to deter the 2022 World Cup host nation one bit. Almoez Ali, the tournament’s top-scorer, netted a fine brace to power Qatar to a comprehensive 2-0 won. While there were absolutely no Qatar supporters at the beginning of the game, a bunch of Omanis managed to make their way into the stadium and vociferously cheered on the Qatar team in the dying stages of the game. Then there was also the one South Korean woman, flanked by security, proudly waving the Qatar flag. It was a game that kept everyone on their toes, but ended without any theatricals.

That ends Diary’s time in the UAE and he will now catch the rest of the action on the telly whilst sipping some newly purchased Arabic tea and chomping on some mouth-watering baklava, from the confines of his workspace.

Yallah!