Anirudh Thapa: It's not for the Indian team, it's for the whole of India
Imagine being 20, and playing just your 12th match for your country in your national team's biggest game in recent history.
Imagine having a mediocre first half performance, and then imagine coming out in the second to set things right with a delightful dink over the goalkeeper, and setting your team on the path to a historic win.
Imagine being Anirudh Thapa, at the Al Nahyan Stadium, Abu Dhabi, in an India shirt against Thailand on Sunday.
"Amazing! Big game, for me and for India," he says, after the 4-1 win where he scored India's third (and only his first senior) goal. "Obviously, because in 2011, we lost our first match 4-0 [to Australia]. Many people had hopes and some were doubtful, but we did our best."
Thapa was still in St. Stephen's Academy, Chandigarh, a wide-eyed boy of 12, when India last made the Asian Cup finals in 2011, and he remembers watching snatches of the games on TV, wondering if he would ever make it as a professional player. Perhaps it is modesty, or just the way he plays the game, but he never even dreamt of marking his debut in the event with a goal.
"My job is to run up and down. When Sunil bhai [Sunil Chhetri] played the ball to Udanta bhai [Udanta Singh], I had maybe just one percent chance to get on the rebound or something," he remembers his diagonal run across the Thailand half in the 68th minute that would end with the ball at his feet, and then in the goal behind Chatchai Bootprom. "Luckily, Udanta bhai just slipped for the moment, and he gave me the pass, and I saw that the goalkeeper and both defenders were going one side, and I just thought of chipping in, and it went in."
Does Thapa visualise sequences like other sportspersons, and specifically did he visualise scoring a goal on Asian Cup debut? "No, never in my life. Because I like assisting players. This is a big thing for me," he confesses, before revealing that was probably why he had no celebratory routine in mind. "This time I was super excited because when I scored, all I was saying was, 'Come on, man. We can do this.' Super excited! That's why no celebrations were coming."
An elaborate celebration can wait for the next game against UAE, he promises, but for the moment he begins his dedications with one to central midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh, who used to wear the number 7 jersey before Thapa and occupied the same position in central midfield. "He should have been here, and not me, but for his injuries," he says. "This is also for Sunil bhai, because he has worked day and night, all the fans supporting us, everybody in our staff, who are working day and night.
"It's not the Indian team, it's for the whole of India."