EIGHT YEARS AGO, on 27th July 2011, Amrando Colaco's India travelled to Doha for a friendly.
They played Qatar at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium. Sunil Chhetri got an early goal through a penalty, and Sushil Kumar Singh scored in the second half. India won the match 2-1 in front of 13,000 fans. It was not a FIFA international friendly, but the result provided a significant morale boost for the players. Next week they managed to hold UAE to a draw at home in the World Cup Qualifiers.
Fast forward 8 years later, India were in Doha again; this time for a World Cup / Asian Cup joint qualifier match. But the Qatar team they were facing had a night and day difference compared to the one back then.
In a way, Qatar's rapid transformation over the last 8 years formed the backdrop for this match. Back then, India were a nation struggling to make a mark in Asia; something they continue to do. But Qatar, then hardly seen as a contender in the continental stage, had risen to become the Champions of Asia in 2019; ultimately victorious at the same tournament where India got knocked out from the group stage.
They were coming into this match off a 6-0 victory against Afghanistan. India, on the other hand, had bungled their slender lead against Oman, losing the game by conceding two goals in the last few minutes.
Hardly anyone expected an upset. It was in-form champions against a team most recently known for trying hard but failing.
It was this label of "trying hard and failing" that represented the biggest challenge for the Blue Tigers coming into this match. In Asian Cup, they had almost made it to the second round, but failed in the last few minutes. Then in the Intercontinental Cup, when they finally found their groove, they failed to beat Syria in the last 12 minutes. Then the home loss to Oman, which threatened an early end to India's hopes of making it to the third round of World Cup Qualifiers.
The frustration of repeatedly falling short, the fatigue of the last few minutes, the prospect of suffering a decisive defeat that would once again end their hopes before they had even taken shape; the Indian football team was battling many demons as they walked out tonight.
Four changes were made to the starting line-up. Sunil Chhetri had taken ill, Aashique Kuruniyan had an injury. Nikhil Poojary, Sahal Abdul Samad, Mandar Rao Dessai and Manvir Singh came into the first eleven, while Qatar retained mostly the same squad that beat Afghanistan 6-0 on Thursday.
Qatar began on the offensive from minute one. Yousuf showed off his pace on the right wing, constantly trying to get behind the Indian defensive line. Within the first 5 minutes he had managed to supply multiple crosses into the box, but the Indian defence fended that off. The crafty offside trap came into play early; something that would prove to be crucial as the evening went on.
Meanwhile, Tarek Salman started making sneaky runs up the midfield, perhaps as intended as an extra pressure point for the Indian backline by Qatar head coach Felix Sanchez. He was getting the ball, but displayed a tendency for shooting from the distance; giving Gurpreet Singh Sandhu enough time to judge the ball and get to it. Even Abdelkarim Hassan, another veteran defender with a knack for finding the net, was also fancying himself on the scoresheet with shots from outside the box.
The intention of the Qatari team was clear: to pick up where they left off against Afghanistan.
Predictably, within minutes of the game starting, Manvir Singh was repeatedly sprinting back deep into the Indian half. The Blue Tigers were playing with 10, sometimes 11 men behind the ball. The attacks were relentless; but at least there was nothing to take the Indians by surprise. They had showed up to defend; everyone from Gurpreet to Udanta dug their feet in and refused to budge.
There were occasional clap-backs, though. 6 minutes in, Udanta got the ball and led a counter with his trademark pace. He sent a diagonal ball to Manvir Singh who found Thapa who forwarded it to Nikhil Poojary, switching flanks. But Nikhil lost the ball to a defender within seconds.
Losing the ball was to be a theme all night for India. They struggled to put together 3-4 passes from the midfield. Qatar players were on point with their interceptions and never let the opposition get comfortable on the ball. Even the long balls were not very helpful. The likes of Udanta, Nikhil, Anirudh Thapa were all easily outdone in the air by tall, physically imposing Qatari defenders. Udanta literally had Tarek Salman head the ball over his head a couple of times.
Qatar were doing everything right but whenever they came to the final third, their efforts were thwarted. Captain Hassan Al-Haydos had a stinger of a left foot and within the first 10 minutes Gurpreet tasted it twice. He made the save both times. Al-Haydos, smelling an early break-through, ramped up the attack; and delivered a near-perfect corner kick in one of Qatar's very first important set-pieces. But while the ball floated into space in front of the goal, no white shirt met it to make the finish.
Then a botched clearance from Mandar saw Abdulaziz Hatem with the ball inside the box with Gurpreet caught completely off position. But the midfielder sent it wide.
Hatem kept at it. Qatar earned back to back corners, and he took them both. Neither had much effect. A ball from the midfield found Almoez Ali but Sandesh Jhingan stuck to him, refusing to allow him the space to take a good shot.
The pressure was mounting and India were looking for a breather. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu got booked for time-wasting; 22 minutes into the first half.
The onslaught continued. Boualem Khoukhi got a lofted ball inside the Indian box and he had an easy chance to find the net but headed it wide. Then Almoez found a gap in the Indian defence, sending a through ball for Yusuf Abdurisag but the offside trap caught him again, perfectly.
By this time a frown had started to settle in on Felix Sanchez's forehead. Qatar were creating chances but somehow not managing to finish; a stark change from five nights ago when finding the net looked like the easiest thing in the world. The midfielders had tried to play short passes and spread the game in order to manufacture holes in the Indian defence, but the visitors had not fallen for that trap and chosen to hang back. Meanwhile, the clock was getting close to half-time.
Just before half-time, Almoez sent a lightning fast low ball towards the net. Gurpreet reacted within a split second, diving to his right and getting a hand on the ball. It was yet another great save.
The game was goalless at half-time. It was a surprise, but Qatar went into the break as the clear dominant side. If they were having an off night up front, a bit of re-adjustment and dressing room talk was enough to make necessary corrections. After all, they just needed one goal to get their groove back. Just one finish, off the dozens of shots they were taking at Gurpreet's goal.
The match resumed. And for the Indian team it was a case of doubling down on defence. Jhingan continued to mark Almoez while the backline kept catching Qatari attackers offside; even from mid-range free kicks.
Rowllin Borges fouled Haydos just outside the penalty box and got a yellow card. Haydos took the free kick, going straight for the net, but Gurpreet slapped the ball out of the way, allowing Sahal Abdul Samad to rush ahead with a counter where he almost got past the entire Qatar defence. Assim Madibo had no option but to foul him, and while it was a blatant last-man offense the referee gave him a yellow card instead of a red.
The clocked ticked past the hour mark and the nervy nil-nil was still holding on.
The Indian defence got some time to catch their breath when Udanta got fouled on the other end of the pitch, and the free kick led to a corner. Anirudh floated the corner into the box, and it got defelcted out; but Sahal was waiting for it. Away from the scrum, he had enough time to aim and shoot but just missed the target.
Qatar resumed their barrage of attacks, and the Indian defenders made one desperate clearance after another. By now Qatar had had a dozen corners and a bunch of free kicks. But the deadlock was unbroken, and the clock was nearing 70th minute.
Moreover, the Indian team had started to own the task. They were not slowing down. There was no sign of progressive cracks in their armour. In fact, the idea of taking a point from the Asian champions, which appeared to be a faraway reverie even at half-time, had started to take shape as a palpable, achievable target. The players were throwing everything behind each tackle. And the chants of hundreds of Manjappada members who had showed up to support India were drowing out the home fans.
What was a dream now seemed like destiny.
Gurpreet made yet another great save, managing to track a tricky low ball that came from behind some defenders' legs and swung on the air. Ala Eldin got hold of a cross and fired away, but missed the target. Haydos took another aim, but Gurpreet saved it. Then a particularly hard attack saw Gurpreet make a block but the ball went straight to Yusuf Abdurisag who had had an empty net to find. He let fly, and the ball hit the crossbar.
Indian defence had faltered, but still the Qatari attack had failed to capitalize. It was fate.
And as the match entered the added time, it was the home team that appeared to be slowing down. The crosses no longer had that sting. The last few efforts came from a distance, almost half-hearted. Gurpreet made saves akin to those he does at practice every day. The clock ticked on and the final whistle came right on cue.
Igor Stimac, his support staff, the players from the reserve bench all sprinted onto the pitch to embrace their teammates. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had taken a knee, finally overwhelmed by the occasion, as others hugged him and stood him up. The whole squad walked up to the fans, and Sandesh Jhingan led the viking claps.
In the modern era of Indian football, they had never managed to hold the continental champions to a draw. The last two times they had earned an "upset" result in the World Cup qualifiers, it had been win against UAE in 2001 and a draw against the same team in 2011. But this match, in terms of stakes, challenge and prestiege, surpasses them all.
Time will tell the significance of this result. Will this mark a turnaround where the Blue Tigers stop being the team that tried and failed, and succeed where no one expected them to? Or will this be another lightning in the bottle like the past upset results against UAE? However things turn out from here, nothing will take away this moment from the players.
Just like 8 years ago, the Indian team delivered an upset against Qatar right in their den. And this time, they stopped the indomitable Asian champions on their tracks.
The team that has convincingly beaten the likes of South Korea, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Japan, failed to find their way past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
And when push came to shove, India did not fade away in the final minutes. They did not concede a penalty like they did against Bahrain and Syria or leave the defence wide open like the match against Oman. Instead, in those pivotal final moments, they broke Qatar's will to keep pushing.
2019 has been a whirlwind for the Blue Tigers. But so far, their performance has been mostly underscored by that loss against Bahrain, known to fans as the 'Sorrow of Sharjah.'
Perhaps the 'Die Hards of Doha', from this cleansing moment of redemption, can begin exorcising the ghost of that fateful night.