AFC Asian Cup 2019: So Close Yet So Far - Another Dead End For Indian Football?
As the clock ticked down at the Al-Sharjah Stadium, my writing instincts were slowly but steadily guiding me to prepare for a fairy-tale underdog story on Indian football; on how a group of eleven men led by a wily manager defied all odds to reach the final 16 of Asia's most prestigious football tournament.
The Indian players were tiring; they had virtually nothing left in the tank but at the 74th minute, when they somehow scrambled and averted the danger from a rather dubious indirect free kick awarded to Bahrain, it looked as if "it was written in the stars" - the men in blue were destined to finally reach the promised land.
It was an adventure fraught with danger, yet somehow beyond common logic, it appeared that the David would come out unscathed against the mighty Goliath.
Alas, football is a game of fine margins. As things turned out, a late penalty converted with ruthless efficiency by Bahrain's star man Jamal Rashid meant that the Indians crashed out of the group stage, just as they did in 2011 at Asia's showpiece event.
Sandesh Jhinghan, the Kerala Blaster FC defender, was a towering presence throughout the match and called his fellow defenders "warriors" in a post-match interview.
Perhaps no other man on the pitch personified the warrior spirit as he did during those 90 minutes. It would be a match remember for Indian football, albeit being on the wrong side of the result.
However, harsh as it may sound, it is perhaps time to elevate out of the fairy-land and face the reality.
Yes, it was indeed an improved show by the Indians, beating Thailand 4-1 and registering the nation's first victory in the competition in 64 years was impressive; but the bottom-line is India once again failed to capitalize on a moment that could have perhaps been a turning point for the game in the country.
Stephen Constantine's emotional resignation at the end of the match marks the end of an era.
A nation languishing at FIFA Rank 173, when the veteran took over the reins as the manager of the side for the second time in his career, the journey to the Top 100 of world football has been one to remember. Yet, the journey was far from perfect.
The World Cup qualifiers in 2015 - which also served as the first phase of Asian Cup qualifiers - saw India losing away to Guam - a tiny Pacific island country 6000 times smaller than India in size.
The Men in Blue finished bottom of the group, which paved a way for a longish Asian Cup qualification campaign - which in hindsight - proved to be a blessing in disguise, allowing the nation to play more international football and rise through the FIFA rankings.
Constantine's tactics have been questioned more than once over the years and the showing at the Asian Cup will certainly not help that particular cause.
India's Asian Cup set up was primarily based on counter-attacking football, characterised by long balls from the defence which were efficiently held up by the forwards led by Sunil Chhetri - who despite his smallish demeanor proved to be a nuisance in the air.
This opened up spaces along the wings which were exploited by India's industrious wide-men when the right ball was played to them.
It was a well-practiced routine as evidenced against Thailand, as the long balls wreaked havoc for the Thai defense.
However, similar tactics failed to deliver partially in the second half against UAE and also in the match against Bahrain who were physically superior opponents.
Constantine's India had a well-rehearsed plan A; yet when the situation demanded, there wasn't a Plan B or Plan C to fall back upon.
India failed to create enough opportunities after falling behind rather against the run of play against UAE. Statistically, Indian forwards might have struck the post twice, but the truth to be told, the side wasn't a serious offensive threat post the first 30 minutes.
Reluctance to shy away from plan A against Bahrain meant that the Indians hardly had the ball, which led to a barrage of Bahrain attacks, and against a tiring Indian defense, the goal was always a matter of time.
They were made to suffer without the ball and Aniruddh Thapa's weak clearance was a testament to fact that the boys despite their valiant efforts, where running on empty tanks and it eventually paved the way for the penalty for Bahrain.
Constantine, on his part, should have tried to tweak the style of play, not necessarily the players in and around the hour mark in the game.
There are many other questions that remain to be answered. Did the Indians show too much respect to a declining Bahrain side? Did they play for merely a draw?
After all, that same road had devastating consequences back in 2013 at a hostile ground in Chinese Taipei, when needing a draw against Myanmar to qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup, India succumbed to a very late goal from Soe Min Oo.
Reflecting back, there could have been several things that might have been done differently as the Indian camp shall be left pondering on what might have been.
There was a moment late into the Bahrain match when the Indians were awarded a freekick in a dangerous position, following a blistering run from the ever promising Udanta Singh - one of India's rare forays into the opposition half.
All of a sudden, the noise from 10,000 odd travelling Blue Pilgrims at the stadium reached epic proportions - an instance that made the television commentator remark if it was Virat Kohli - the country's charismatic cricket leader - who was coming out to bat.
For a country that has traditionally been a cricket crazy nation, this was one of the many tiny triumphs Indian football had at the tournament.
But for the fans of the game, we still await the defining "shot in the arm" - the moment which turns out to be a milestone moment for Indian football; that propels the popularity of the game to length and breadth of the country.
A qualification to the round of 16 might have been one, but we shall be left to rue our chances. Indian football must build on the positives soon; for the fans in our nation often tend to be fickle minded.
They do not necessarily have the strongest of memories. Thus, Indian football cannot wait for another half a decade for the next "promising phase"; else these culminations of small victories would once again turn out to be all in vain - hitting a mere dead end!