Deconstructing Indian football, via interstellar and time travel
The Indian men's national football team played its final game of 2019 on Tuesday night, losing tamely to Oman, and effectively ending their hopes of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
What started as a year full of hope and excitement quickly turned into an unpredictable ride including a change of coach, memorable goals, historic results as well as heartbreaking defeats.
There was really only one logical way to make sense of the chaotic year that was Indian football, as we put one of our unsuspecting correspondents into a time machine, forcing him into a journey across the time-space continuum.
These are his findings.
January 6, 2019
There are tears all around. Tears of joy, of incredulity. In the stands, in the media box, everywhere. Bloody hell, Anirudh Thapa. What a goal this is. What an audacious chip.
India, already up 2-1 against Thailand, have scored their third, and it's the best of the night - a slick counterattack finished with rare flamboyance by a young man who has been thrown in at the deep end. What a sight.
Abu Dhabi has always been pleasant around this time of the year, but for an Indian football fan, it has not been this good for a long time.
Jeje Lalpekhlua comes on, and almost immediately toe-pokes a wonderful finish into the top corner. What is happening? Four goals against Thailand? Is this how India play football now? Attacking, sexy, football?
Oh, my. I don't think I can take this...
October 15, 2019
Woah. What just happened there? Why is it suddenly so muggy and hot and how are there so many people around me? I look at my phone; it says I am in the middle of October. Eh? Am I in a Christopher Nolan movie here? I seem to have accidentally stumbled into some sort of a wormhole in the time-space continuum.
As the general blurriness that accompanies, er, time-travel, subsides, I notice I am in Kolkata, and that India have just played in front of a sold-out Salt Lake stadium. Oh, wonderful. I look down on the pitch; Adil Khan is leading a Viking clap.
Wait, Adil Khan is back in the team? Nice. So lovely to see hard work get its just reward. Wonder what made Stephen Constantine change his mind, though. Doesn't matter, a Viking Clap is on. India must have sealed an emphatic victory.
I glance over at the scoreboard.
India 1 - 1 Bangladesh.
January 14, 2019
There is silence. It is, as the cliché goes, deafening. As I shake off the wooziness of another time-jump, I look around to see if it's just in my head. But no, I'm back in the UAE and the Sharjah stadium might as well be empty. On the giant screen, they are showing the replays - Pronay Halder sticking out a leg in the box, on the stroke of the ninety. Jamal Rashid hammers home the penalty.
Bahrain 1 - 0 India.
I go online, frantically searching for answers. India had lost, bravely™, to the UAE four days previously, but had needed just a draw against Bahrain today to qualify for the second round of the Asian Cup. They had almost done it, but then Halder stuck out that leg.
How did this happen, though? Hadn't we just smashed Thailand to bits? Weren't we favourites to go through?
I sit through the highlights. Ah. Makes sense now. Head coach Stephen Constantine had gone back to safety-first, stay-in-your-own-half football and, of course, that had backfired.
So no success in the Asian Cup. Constantine sheds a tear as he resigns from his post.
Wait, so who had been leading India against Bangladesh?
July 16, 2019
Another time-jump, and I find myself in Ahmedabad. India, it appears, have just played out a 1-1 draw against Syria in the Intercontinental Cup.
"I am not here to nurture players," a big man is drawling at the camera. "When you give orders to players, they follow. Nurturing is for academy football. This is not academy football and I am not an academy coach."
Woah. Strong words. Great accent.
Who is this? All these time-jumps are making my head spin.
The internet comes to the rescue again - this is Igor Stimac. Integral part of the magnificent '98 Croatia team. Derby County legend. Not the most glamourous coaching record. Current head coach of the Indian national team.
"I was not brought here to give just few wins and losses and be nowhere in the middle of somewhere. It's easy to play against certain teams below the range and get the wins," he continues. Ah, potshots at previous management. Spicy.
"But to feel better as a team it takes time, courage and passion. I warned the nation; this way we choose to play, we will need a lot of sacrifice and suffering. That is how these young talented kids will grow."
Oh, yes. This man has to be backed at all costs. He simply gets us. After all, a 1-1 draw against Syria isn't the worst result to kick things off with.
Wait, that wasn't his first game? I investigate further.
India 2 - 4 Tajikistan reads one result. India 2 - 5 North Korea reads the other.
India have finished dead last in their own invitational tournament. What is going on?
October 20, 2019
Tiger Shroff and Disha Patani are dancing. To a Hindi song. In Kochi. In the middle of the Kaloor stadium. Eh? I presume I'm at the ISL opener.
I barely hear the commentator scream, "India's first division is about to kick off, so let's football" before I'm quickly whisked away by another flash of blinding light.
September 10, 2019
For a race that's as un-Norse-y as it gets, what is with this team and these Viking Claps? I struggle to get my bearings. A lot of angry Arabic is being muttered in the stadium. That is a good sign. I look up the score. India have just held Qatar 0-0 in Doha.
Big deal, it's just Qatar, right? But this isn't the Qatar I had known in the beginning of 2019. Qatar now are the Asian champions, conquerors of Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Japan, scorers of 25 goals in eight matches in 2019.
No one in Asia had been able to keep them at bay all year. Until Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and gang rocked up to Doha.
I can see where the Viking Clap has come from this time. Inspired, I dig deeper. Five days ago, India had apparently put Oman to the sword and had been within seven minutes of starting their World Cup Qualification campaign off to an absolute flyer.
This is so promising. So heartening to watch.
But wait, India drew Bangladesh at home after drawing the champions of Asia away?
November 19, 2019
Are we finally in the present? I look down at my phone. Yes, finally. Phew. I look around. The majestic face of Sultan Qaboos bin Said gazes down on me from all corners. Ah, Oman. Lovely little country.
I look down at the pitch - India are down 1-0. For forty-five minutes, ten blue shirts have been camped in their own half. They have barely strung together three passes in the opposition box.
I look back at my phone. No, it's not November 2017.
But where did the team that took the game to Oman in Guwahati two months ago, disappear to?
The next forty-five is better, but the entire match passes by without Ali Al Habsi having to make a save. In fact, there's not even been a shot in anger into row Z. Nothing.
I sit up, trying to gather my thoughts. I have time-travelled all across Indian football's 2019 and come out a confused man. I have seen hope, promise, disappointment, dullness, and utter failure. I have seen a quiet man say nothing, and do nothing. I have heard a loud man say a lot, and still do pretty much nothing. I have seen heady optimism and mind-numbing pessimism in equal measure.
I struggle to reconstruct all that has happened until now - a superb performance against Oman, one of the best results in modern Indian football history against Qatar, two uninspiring draws eked out against Bangladesh and Afghanistan. And now, a meek surrender in Muscat.
All of this after India had started the year so brilliantly against Thailand.
Now, there's next to no chance of qualifying for the second round of World Cup qualifiers. There is still, though, a chance to finish third and salvage some pride. Getting into the Asian Cup qualifiers - without the extra playoff -- was always the most realistic target.
I take both the good along with the bad. After all, following the Indian national football team can sometimes be a wild, unpredictable ride.
Beam me up to 2020 already.