Being in Qatar brings out a different feeling. It was here in 2011 that I first came over for the AFC Asian Cup. I was 18 then. Then I was here again in 2011 some months later when I toured with the Indian U-23 team for the Olympic Qualifiers. On both occasions I was on the bench – waiting, and watching for my chance, and imagining a lot. The chance came calling some eight years later.
In Guwahati in 2019, after the 1-2 loss against Oman in our first match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, there was pin-drop silence in the dressing room after the final whistle. Everyone was dumbstruck, panting heavily, sipping water. None uttered a word. There was disbelief that we lost after leading 1-0 for 80 minutes. But amidst all that disbelief, there was belief to better it.
We flew the next day and when we got to Doha, everything was perfect. The environment, the food, the hotel, the training pitch – all were so ideal. We used to discuss amongst ourselves – ‘Look at the pitch, look at the stadium. It doesn’t get better than this.’
Sunil-bhai was there, but wasn’t there. He got ill. We could sense his frustration. So much so that he wasn’t even able to go to a single practice session, and even on the matchday against Qatar, he watched it on TV from his room.
The plan on match day was to make life difficult for Qatar who are such a talented team. They had won the AFC Asian Cup earlier that year, and were buzzing after playing in the Copa America. We had to stay compact against them, and take our chances whenever we smelt a counter. And with that, we had to fight with everything. Everyone was desperate to contribute – everyone was trying their best.
As a goalkeeper, it’s always so assuring to get the first touch of the ball without committing any mistake. That sets the tone for me, and I guess for all goalkeepers. Hence, I always look forward to getting the feel of the ball early.
I remember they had a corner and someone at the first post in an attempt to head it out flicked the ball. I lost my cool, shouted at him. But soon realised that he tried his best to jump for that extra inch. We were all trying, trying to bring out that inhuman from all of humans.
The clock started ticking, and we started to grow in confidence. The first-half ended goalless. We could gauge the frustrations around as the predictions that we would be whitewashed weren’t coming true. It allowed us to breathe a bit more. We realised we were heading in the right direction. ‘Take some blows guys, we can do it,’ was the sentiment. The pressure was huge, but the belief was more.
The dynamics were even better in the 2nd half. Seeing Sahal, Udanta dribble past the best in Asia – the ones who won the Asian Cup was a message which hit them hard. It was a great boost. We were not just defending, rather we were attacking and pushing them on the back foot on occasions.
Abdulkarim Hassan, the best side-back in Asia, I guess, never expected an Indian winger (Udanta) to speed past him in two quick successions, making him breathe heavily. When I punched a Hassan Al Haidous free-kick and the ball landed to Sahal, the rivals were caught unaware as Sahal latched on to it, and got past them. Eventually, a professional foul came to their rescue. That’s what pleases you – doing the unexpected when nothing is expected of you.
Almost everyone I speak to always makes me remember about the Qatar match. But if you ask me, that isn’t my best performance so far. I understand that in the Qatar match, we got a result – and hence, it will always stay a highlight.
Rather, I will always pick two other matches ahead of my performance against Qatar. The away match against Iran in the World Cup Russia 2018 Qualifiers in 2016 in front of a packed Azadi Stadium in Tehran will always remain on top of my list. Yeah, we lost 0-4, but I feel there was much more pressure in Tehran, than in Doha.
The match against China in China also ranks high on my list. It required me to be at my best, and depicted my mentality, like all others.
Indian National Team goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who had captained the Blue Tigers against Qatar in the first-leg of the Qualifiers recollects, and writes for AIFF Media about the mood, sentiment and the belief which helped India to hold Asian champions Qatar to a goalless draw.