The night a new India roared
On an emotionally charged Tuesday night in Bengaluru, Stephen Constantine's India tackled hard, fought for every challenge, got their warrior spirit on and then Sunil Chhetri did what only he can: took your breath away.
For a moment one thought: 'okay, India haven't created many chances, best not to lose from here, no?' But this isn't an Indian team one is accustomed to seeing. This has become one you expect a win from, and on a night playing against Kyrgyzstan, their toughest opponents in their group, they were expected to win, and boy did they have to fight for it!
Chhetri's 69th-minute strike got the stadium bouncing, it sent the nerves of those watching on another trip, their mind into disbelief. The stadium was shaken by the feet of the Indian captain. "It's been 12 years I have played for my country and this is by far one of the best performances I have been part of," he said after the game.
It was no ordinary win; the 1-0 victory took them to the top of the table in the Asian Cup Qualifiers. Two years ago, one may not have seen that coming. Now, India have won eight matches on the trot and 13 out of their last 15, although one of those victories was in an unofficial friendly over Bhutan. "About time," Constantine said of the run.
These players have gone from silent underdogs to roaring lions. Fighting for every tackle, every chance on goal and every battle with the ball. At the end of the game, Sandesh Jhinghan came to the far end, jumped, lifted his hands and gave out a loud "C'moooonnnn!" The crowd roared back. It was the kind of sight one is used to seeing from players of a team which hates losing. This Indian side has evolved into such a team - fearless , confident, full of self-belief.
Rowllin Borges had eight stitches on his head before the game. On the eve of the match, he asked Constantine, "Am I going to play?" He did start and he played with his heart on his sleeve. He flew in with tackles and headed the ball as if the stitches didn't exist. If he was heroic, so was Sandesh Jhinghan. And Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. And Anas Edathodika. "It was such a complete team performance," Chhetri said after the game.
Things didn't look all that rosy at half-time, though. India spurned a few chances, their midfield was getting exposed far too often and it was only the defence which kept India in the tie. At half-time, Constantine ordered his men to do their job, demanding they not show their opponents as much respect as they had.
In the second half, the drive was better, the intent stronger, the songs louder. By the end of it, India could have won 3-0. "If it's a battle of stamina, I would put us to beat anybody at the moment," Constantine had said before the game. And the difference in fitness levels between the sides showed.
Chhetri's goal was symbolic of what the national team has become. He dribbled past one player, then another, scrapped against one more, passed it to Jeje Lalpekhlua, got the ball back and finished it. Quality, teamwork, belief, and intent - it was all there. "I was thinking 'Don't fall' when I got tackled the first time. And when I gave the ball to Jeje, 'keep running', and then I went on and scored," Chhetri described the goal.
While Indian domestic football is in a state of flux, the national team is perhaps at the opposite end -- knowing exactly what to do, and how to go about it.
If this was indeed the best game India has played in a while, the three points is fitting reward. No other result would have done their performance justice.