Sunil Chhetri is still around to save the day for India but there is a lot more to be excited about

Chhetri saved the day for India, again (Pic Credits: AIFF Media)
Chhetri saved the day for India, again (Pic Credits: AIFF Media)
Shashwat Kumar

June 11, 2022. The Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata is overflowing with fans – fans who haven’t watched India play in the past few years. They’ve had to brave a COVID-19 outbreak in between.

They’ve answered pleas from head coach Igor Stimac and talismanic skipper Sunil Chhetri. They’ve come out in thousands and have made it feel as if India are contesting the final of the FIFA World Cup.

There is celebration. People are dancing in the aisles. It almost gives out a vibe that the result doesn’t matter. But it does. Because India won their opening game against Cambodia, there is realistic expectation that they can qualify for successive AFC Asian Cups for the first time in their history. That, though, is contingent on outlasting Afghanistan – a team that has, over the years, proved to be a banana skin for the Blue Tigers.

In the first half, it looks like Afghanistan have simply not turned up. Apart from a few strong (albeit avoidable) challenges, they don’t have much to shout about. The initial tendency is to lambast the Afghans for putting up such a wretched display in a crucial contest. As the minutes tick by, however, there is a growing feeling that India, long considered tactically inferior to some of the best sides in Asia, are tactically outwitting their rivals.

The second half, though, paints an eerily similar and painful picture. A few tactical tweaks and a greater emphasis on pressing by Afghanistan rids India of the requisite time and space to control the game. In the opening 45 minutes, everything they did seemed to have a purpose. Post the break, everything they’re doing is seemingly an obligation. The clearances are hurried, pin-point passes are sporadic, and there is no cutting edge in attack.

As the game meanders towards a rather entertaining stalemate, there is a twist. A foul is committed on the edge of the box and India have a free-kick that they can capitalize on. It’s not what they would’ve had in mind, considering their free-flowing start to the game. But for now, it seems just about right – both in terms of how dramatic and poetic it could be, and also because a dead-ball situation seems the best avenue for a breakthrough.

Akin to expectations, Sunil Chhetri – India’s captain, leader and legend, steps up to take the free-kick. There is a hushed silence across the Salt Late Stadium. They’ve seen the Bengaluru FC skipper pull victories out of the fire and score for the nation no less than 82 times. But he hasn’t been at his best lately. Quite often, it’s been enough for India although, by his lofty standards, it has been a bit of a dampener.

For further context, the last time Sunil Chhetri took a free-kick on Friday, he smashed the ball into the wall. He then hit a tame left-footed effort from the rebound that only struck one among the horde of Afghan defenders. There is still hope, mind you. All football fans in the country have been born and brought up on miracles conjured by Chhetri.

They experienced that crescendo just a few days ago against Cambodia. But at 37 years of age and in a match where he has largely been anonymous, surely, he won’t be able to do it again?

Sunil Chhetri scored the opener for India against Afghanistan

Chhetri takes a deep breath. He has a look at where the keeper is stationed and then, time stands still. He waltzes to the ball and floats it high over the wall. The ball spins, swerves, dips, and does all sorts of sorcery associated with a football. Most importantly, it nestles into the back of the net, sending countless fans into frenzy in Kolkata.

And, just like that, Chhetri proves that he, irrespective of whatever crests and troughs Indian football is going through, remains inevitable – an inevitability that will surface when his country needs him most. That, however, is quickly followed by a poor goal concession and only redeemed by Sahal Abdul Samad’s heroics in the dying embers of the encounter.

85’ GOOAAALLL!! The captain @chetrisunil11 scores from the free kick spot outside the box, he shoots straight into the right corner of the net! AFG 0️⃣-1️⃣ IND #AFGIND ⚔️ #ACQ2023 🏆 #BlueTigers 🐯 #BackTheBlue 💙 #IndianFootball

By then, though, Chhetri and India had highlighted everything good and bad about the national team at the moment. The good, as you might have guessed by now, is that Chhetri is still around to save the day. With the national team, he has achieved that sort of stardom where it wouldn’t be a surprise if he starts walking on water someday and people believe he was always meant to do so.

There were plenty of other positives too. Suresh Singh Wangjam, in two outings so far, has shown excellent tactical awareness. He has snuffed out danger expertly and has recycled the ball as well as he has ever done. Jeakson Singh, preferred for the Afghanistan game, was a little patchier but still held his own.

Akash Mishra and Naorem Roshan Singh have been menaces down the flanks. Ashique Kuruniyan and Manvir Singh haven’t been much different. And while each would ideally want to improve their end product, there is enough to work with. Oh, and if Liston Colaco can add more goals to his game, he could be a genuine attacking threat against most continental opposition.

But the good is never present without a tinge of the bad. Against Afghanistan, India lost steam after about 55-60 minutes. They weren’t harrying the opposition into mistakes and they weren’t able to create much for themselves. They also seemed to abandon the tactical instructions Stimac had provided at the start of the game – instructions, which lest we forget, they were adhering to when fresher.

In transitional situations, too, India seemed to lack the requisite intent to mount counter attacks. On a couple of occasions, they jogged around the ball despite Afghanistan leaving spaces at the back. There were also instances when India’s first touch and passing was not crisp enough to break open the opposition rear-guard. And, they shipped an avoidable goal moments after they had surged into the lead.

This is, in many ways, something they know they have to rectify. Chhetri and Stimac have been vocal in saying that there are still several rough edges waiting to be smoothened. If the second half against Afghanistan is viewed in isolation, a case could be made that India are nowhere close to finding the solution either.

Football, though, is rarely ever played in isolation. It is played in the backdrop of what players have been through all their lives and what system they’ve had to battle. India, unfortunately, hasn’t really had a system to brag about historically. It is, at the cost of sounding cliched, a case of them flourishing despite the system rather than because of it.

So, it will take time. Stimac has been of that opinion since the day he was appointed. Back then, Chhetri was there to save the day and accord him the time he needed. In 2022, Chhetri is still there and is pleading for people to believe what Stimac has been preaching all along.

As fate would have it, it took a marvellous Chhetri free-kick to lend weight to that notion – much like his moments of magic have, over the years, kept thousands of football fans in the country hopeful of a brighter dawn. It won’t happen instantly and people have perhaps bought into that narrative.

But just when it was venturing into lost cause territory, who else but Chhetri to inject new wind into India’s sails. It has always been this way. And it is most certainly going to be this way for the foreseeable future. This time, though, it isn’t just about Chhetri.

FULL-TIME at the VYBK Stadium! A goal from @chetrisunil11 and a late goal from @sahal_samad gives India 🇮🇳all the 3️⃣ points tonight! WHAT A NIGHT OF FOOTBALL! AFG 1️⃣-2️⃣ IND #AFGIND ⚔️ #ACQ2023 🏆 #BlueTigers 🐯 #BackTheBlue 💙 #IndianFootball

It’s about the youngsters buying into a philosophy – a philosophy that Stimac hasn’t compromised on. To get to this stage is a victory in itself, considering all that has happened. India, however, mustn’t be happy with just qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup.

It is capable of so much more, despite the obstacles each of their players have to tide over. These footballers might’ve been saying that to themselves in the confines of their dressing room. Now, if they come out with similar conviction, fans on the aisles will take them seriously and actually believe that Indian football might finally be on the right track.

It could still go awry because, well, it’s happened far too often for it to not be taken with a pinch of salt anymore. But this seems better. This looks better. And most definitely, it feels better.

Edited by Habil Ahmed Sherule


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