'Mujhe Sunil Chhetri ke saath khelna hain’
Blame it on the unimaginative Indian football reporting, often the final question asked in a telephonic interview is, ‘what is the dream that you keep chasing?’ or some headline-hunting stupid query like that.Balwant Singh was panting on the other end, but came up with the aforementioned sentence – ‘I want to play with Sunil Chhetri’.
That was back in January 2014, when Singh was at the onset of a breakaway season, having scored four goals in Churchill Brothers’ Federation Cup win. It took him three and a half years to finally realize his dream on a regular basis and on Wednesday evening, he made it count.
It was the Punjab lad’s pass from the right which set up Chhetri for his 55th international goal, giving India the lead in a match, where victory would have earned them a ticket to the AFC Asian Cup. India are not a regular guest to the quadrennial championship and have only taken part thrice in the last 53 years. Stephen Constantine’s men, however, won four matches on the trot in the third round of qualifiers to book tickets to the 2019 UAE edition.
On an evening, where incessant downpour in Bengaluru not only made the ground heavy but also affected the usual counter-attacks of the Blue Tigers, the difference between India and Macau looked narrower. The travellers are footballing minnows in every sense of the word and were not putting up any great resistance, but Sunil Chhetri and co. found it difficult to register their dominance on the score-line.
Rowllin Borges, one of Stephen Constantine’s favourite pupils, got a lucky goal when his innocuous shot took a lethal deflection to leave the opponent custodian wrong-footed. That he was lurking just in front of the opponent box was proof how deep the away side were defending, trying to park the bus right from the get-go.
While the hosts found it easy to maraud forward, their defense looked nervy when being confronted with the rare attacks. The first clear-cut opportunity created by Macau saw them equalize as right-back Pritam Kotal was caught napping at the far post, allowing Nicolas Torrao to nod the ball home.
The goal, conceded against the run of play, didn’t actually serve as a wake-up call for the hosts. For the remaining part of the first half and immediately after the breather, India couldn’t test the opponent defence, mainly because of the lack of a quality final pass. That Balwant Singh pass and the Sunil Chhetri tap-in, just on the hour mark, turned the whole thing on its head.
The team was pushing a door that had actually been left ajar and once they understood that, the game was put to bed. The final score-line read 4-1.
It’s astonishing how sharp Chhetri looks even at this age. India have seen many prolific goal-scorer over the years, but the archives didn’t point out many names, who were so keen on dropping down and winning the ball. One of his favourite footballers took his country to the World Cup only 12 hours ago and in the coming days, we can debate on who played a more important role in his nation’s journey to a premier competition.
Starting from a Guwahati evening in March 2015, when he had scored a brace against Nepal to kick-off India’s qualification bid, the Bengaluru FC skipper has been at the forefront of the campaign ever since. “It was so painful to miss out on the previous edition. I had the dream that we would qualify for the next edition, but I hadn’t thought that the day would come this early,” he told after the match.
The next 15 months will be very important for his gaffer as well. Riddled with short-term goals, coaches usually don’t get to rotate squads in that role, but Stephen has earned himself some time to be ready for the ultimate challenge that lies ahead. For the time being, everything looks rosy, but the sceptic in the British coach already knows that his team has not outplayed any higher ranked side in the recent past and to face the best of the continent, almost every aspect has to be worked upon. The fan, though, might not be interested to take a sip of that realism today.
October 11, till now, was a very mundane date on her notebook, except for Bhaichung Bhutia’s winner against Pakistan in Peshawar 22 years back, which had caused some tension in the town. The current batch of Indian football commentators will certainly be held guilty after two-three decades for using the word ‘historic’ on almost every occasion. But, this encounter in Bengaluru, which less than 4500 spectators turned up to witness, deserved that term. The last tie, that probably had so much significance was the AFC Challenge Cup final in 2008.
Many, including this writer, believe that was the evening when the invisible baton of being local football’s poster-boy was completely transferred from Bhaichung Bhutia to Sunil. Indian football has gone through an unbelievable stream of events since then but the Delhi boy has remained the only constant. Will he be able to make a mark at the continental championship as well? If so much can change in the two years after that defeat against Guam, there’s no harm in dreaming!