‘One point changed everything’

‘One point changed everything’

Sunil Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri is not one for exuberant celebrations, often marking his goals - of which there have been plenty in the last few years - with a nod, a finger point or hug of appreciation to the assist provider. The rare occasions he does celebrate, it often reflects the significance of the event.

On Tuesday, he celebrated. As the Indian team held the Asian champions Qatar to a goalless draw in their World Cup qualifier away from home, Chhetri - who missed what is India’s biggest result in recent years due to illness - sat in his hotel screaming with joy.

“I was screaming in the hotel and I had already lost my voice,” says Chhetri, back with his club Bengaluru FC on the first day of pre-season training. “I was so proud that I was part of that team.”

Renowned for his immense professionalism, Chhetri was quick to admit that on that day, there were no restrictions. “I had two pieces of cake, some kheer,” he smiles. Impressive as the result was, for the Indian number 11- the most experienced campaigner for Igor Stimac’s side at the age of 35 - it’s more than that.

“We only got one point but it just changed everything for us,” he says. “Now when we come to the camp, it will be a different team with the confidence of knowing what you can do. It was a very important day for us.”

The excitement is still palpable on Chhetri’s face. He admits to being upset before the kick off but once the action started, everything changed.

“From 60-80th minute I was thinking, time should pass. Then, from 80th minute they got desperate and we got three-four counters, I was thinking 10 minutes more, five minutes more, we are going to score. If the game went on, trust me, we would have scored,” he stressed adding that the sight of Xavi Hernandez (who has a big hand in Qatar’s football and success) sitting in the stands chewing his nails was a bonus.

“They were in our box and controlling position but we would have scored. They were two 2v2 and both time defender (Bassam Al-Rawi) lunged at Udanta (Singh). We would have got a penalty or we would have scored.”

As a throwaway sentence he adds, “Imagine if we had won the game, then just the thought of Oman game (2-1 loss) would have killed us.”

Meanwhile on the field, it was Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who took the mantle of the captain. And it would be no exaggeration to say the custodian did his job with great aplomb.

“It was kind of a relief for me because I wanted to get a clean sheet with a national team, so I was very happy about that,” remarked Gurpreet. “On the other hand, not only me, but all of the boys performed really really well.

“Regarding the captaincy, it was just added responsibility that I do my job well. It won’t help other players seeing that one of the senior player is not performing up to the mark. It’s something I’ve learned from Chhetri bhai.” He also admitted that the result was the most satisfying one in his career so far.

“Yes, because I could see the amount of effort everyone, the 10 in front of me, had put. So to get rewarded was very satisfying.”