Asian Cup diaries: Double punched in the stomach at dinner time
Having watched the Indian men's hockey team lose their much-anticipated World Cup quarterfinal just a month ago in Bhubaneswar, the elimination against Bahrain after a late penalty in the Asian Cup was like being double punched in the stomach at dinner time.
The odds were stacked so well for India, that a friend and her husband actually chose not to come to Sharjah, because they were that sure that they would watch the team in their round of 16 game again in Dubai.
To be fair, objective journalists are not meant to feel for either side, and call the match exactly as they see it, and India were much poorer than Bahrain on the night. Nonetheless, India were better than what their bottom-placed finish reflects in Group A, and will now watch teams with poorer goals difference (and maybe even fewer points) go through from other groups to make up the round of 16.
What the Asian Cup will miss most is the buzz around the Indian team. Zayed Sports City, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah Stadium both filled to capacity for the first time in their history in successive games, outgoing coach Stephen Constantine had to field questions comparing Sunil Chhetri with Lionel Messi -- as did the Indian striker himself -- and generally the football community took notice of India.
Hopefully, some of the Indian players would have caught the attention of scouts, and those in their early 20s could have a shout at making a career in a more competitive league abroad.
This has truly been an amazing tournament in most aspects, and everybody appreciated the compactness of the eight venues, spread across four cities. The longest stretch was perhaps between Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, but even on a bad day of traffic, that wasn't more than a three-hour drive.
Qatar has been keen on advertising its 2022 World Cup on these lines, and if some of the matches are spread around other Gulf nations as is being suggested, it could make for an interesting fan experience. The evenings are nippy and even 3 pm kickoffs didn't see temperatures in excess of 28 degrees. A handy tip, always carry a jumper for the evenings.
The workforce and staff working across all arenas are helpful, smart and young. The gender parity is a beautiful thing to see, in fact I came across more women than men among the marshals and volunteers. They usually did their work with a smile, and sometimes a bit of confusion over why an Indian journalist was listed in some documents to be from an organisation in U.S.
The Asian Cup is the football tragics' World Cup, and an event like this always brings with it little connections and friendships, that hopefully last longer than the duration of the event.
There's Australian freelancer Scott, who jokes that we've all taken it upon ourselves to provide the organisers with feedback about catering at every venue (blatantly false -- I can promise I have only eaten at six of them, and sometimes the intake has been limited to black coffee and butter croissants). There is Koji, a Japanese video-journalist who is just as shocked with India's exit as perhaps the players themselves, and offers Indian journalists an open invitation to visit him when Japan hosts the rugby World Cup later this year.
There were numerous cab drivers who provided great conversations -- the young man from Khyber-Pakhtunwa who is an ardent admirer of prime minister and former World Cup winner Imran Khan --"Yaqeen karo, Imran humaara jaan hai (Believe me, I love Imran)" -- Bam Bahadur from Nepal, who reassured me ahead of the Bahrain clash that the entire subcontinent's wishes were with India, or the Ethiopian gentleman who just wouldn't believe that Yemen falls inside Asia!
Then there's Faizan, a muscular, poker-faced Pathan who has the unenviable task of making round trips with the inter-city media shuttle, a slow-moving 32-seater, from Abu Dhabi to Sharjah, Al Ain and Dubai (sometimes a combination of the two). Faizan was often grumpy because he has had numerous trips without a single passenger on-board, but then when you made him realise that's the nature of the job, he would make peace with it. We even shared fried chicken and fries over the ride last night. "Afridi bhai ke gaadi mein aap kha sakte hain, lekin giraana nahin (You can eat in my vehicle, but please don't drop anything)".
The best, almost-unspoken kinship was with security guards at practice sessions, where journalists were allowed in for 15 minutes only. For these interviews and often futile chases, we made it to some pretty outlandish locations -- UAE kept theirs in a university campus where finding the football field was akin to reaching the final level of a role-playing video game (the 15 minutes were about to lapse by the time we reached, see?) -- and the last word would come when the security guard locked eyes with you, flash an apologetic smile and say,