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2022 FIFA WC Qualifiers | Moronic India-Bangladesh draw risks elevating distaste for non-cricket sports

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2022 FIFA WC Qualifiers | Moronic India-Bangladesh draw risks elevating distaste for non-cricket sports

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Subhayan Dutta


Heroism is to face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope. While Friedrich Nietzche’s definition isn’t definitely an accurate one like the hundred others of this concept, the words do come as a shuddering realization when put into the context of India’s draw yesterday.

The Blue Tigers were playing a familiar foe on Tuesday at Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata, and not in the sense that they had played 28 times previously with India winning 15 of them. The familiarity seeped much deeper than the statistics. It was the frustration and the hopelessness that football fans had experienced for years, owing to the criminal favouritism towards cricket showed on both sides of the border.

However, the scenario had improved drastically for India over the last few years – not just for football, but most non-cricket sports. Whether it be Saina Nehwal winning the bronze medal in 2012 Games, PV Sindhu, the silver at the Rio Olympics, Bajrang Punia winning the Asiad and Commonwealth Games, or Dipa Karmakar pulling off a Produnova vault at the 2016 Games, middle-class Indian households had opened their doors to make space for others sports as well.

It was exciting times for Indian sport and the corporate decided to go with Football at such a juncture. Massive cash was being pumped into the game and marketing was obviously quintessential to it all. What started as “Lets Football” in 2014 had reached to Sunil Chhetri saying “Ek din World Cup khel ne ke liye, aj humein fan banna padega”. 

The campaign was systematically placed one year before India started their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and if not that campaign alone, Chhetri pleading to the fans, to come to Mumbai and watch India’s Intercontinental Cup match last year, had done the trick. People had turned in numbers to watch it and while the excitement had faded away soon after, the turn-up was a massive victory for all sports non-cricket.

Tuesday wasn’t any different. The “Mecca of Indian football” didn’t even need any pleadings for the perfect ambience as the stadium was jam-packed with over 61,000 fans buzzing with excitement. India’s second Test match against South Africa at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium, Pune, which took place less than a week back and saw India thrashing their opponent by an innings, didn’t see half of what Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan saw. Indian football’s biggest hope was fulfilled in more ways than one and it was coming a full circle.

YBK had been filled before – when Ze Roberto starred for a Bayern Munich side against Mohun Bagan back in 2008 for Oliver Kahn’s farewell game, or when Lionel Messi had come with Argentina to play a FIFA International friendly match against Venezuela there. 

But, Tuesday was different. The salubrious crowd at YBK, smelt not only of sweat but also sacrifice, for the match, scheduled right in the middle of the festive period in the country, didn’t see people rushing in to watch superstars inconsiderate about the result, which has been the case earlier. This fandom reeked of India’s biggest football hope - seeing them getting a step closer to the FIFA World Cup. 

Coming into the match after churning out a draw against higher-placed Qatar in their backyard, who are ranked 42 places above them, to play Bangladesh, who are ranked 84 ranks below them - the stage couldn’t have been any more properly set for the Blue Tigers. However, while many experts wrote off this match calling it a glorious night of Indian football that would have taken the slowly growing fanaticism to a whole new level what happened next was an abomination.

Even a handball fan would have known two aspects about this match – firstly, Bangladesh walked into the YBK hoping for a draw at best, and secondly, India were expected to see way more of the ball and create more chances throughout the 90 minutes. And despite knowing everything about their opponents, India faltered and terribly.

Choker is defined in the urban dictionary as “a person or team that suffers a nervous collapse caused by the pressure of winning.” The Indian team, on Wednesday, had many such personalities on the pitch. And while Igor Stimac refused to blame individuals for the loss, we won’t. India had managed to create 97 attacks to threaten the Bangladesh defence, 55 of which were threatening, in a match that saw India winning 18 free-kicks and 13 corners. Hence, Bangladesh played exactly how one expected them to.

Starting the chain from the very top, Igor Stimac was obviously the pioneer in executing a series of mistakes on a dismal night. His team selection has always been questionable but on Tuesday it was atrocious. 

No one knew exactly why Anas Edathodika had announced his retirement and furthermore why he decided to come out of it. If AIFF went ahead and pleaded him to do so, we’re doomed. If one has to explain the performance of the Kerala centre-half without expletives, it would be “thoroughly error-prone”.  Now, if the coach, who has been consistently naming him in national camps one tournament after the other, doesn’t get to see it, should he be really keeping his job? It doesn’t get restricted to Anas though, as he was ably partnered by Rahul Bheke on the right.

Visibly unfit for the match, the Bengaluru FC full-back had conceded a penalty in the very first minute of the match. Had the referee not been lenient, the vibrant crowd would have been silenced then and there. The full-back, who was widely believed to be wronged by former head coach Stephen Constantine for not being called-up to the team, didn’t compensate for it in any way, missing easy scoring chances and giving the ball away in a move that could have easily led to a second goal for the visitors.

Adil Khan could well be paralleled with the popular meme that comes out every year during Flipkart’s Big Billion Days Sale. It goes like, “I smoke four packs of cigarettes every day, lied to my girlfriend that I smoke two. Today I told her that I’ve reduced it to two. She’s happy, I’m Flipkart.” The Hyderabad FC centre-half, who was selected into the team for his Sandesh Jhingan hairstyle, had several moments of madness on the night but the biggest one came when he was outwitted by Saad Uddin inside the box during a set-piece. While making up the ground, Adil Khan was run over by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to add comic relief to the tragedy, as India conceded. However, he also scored the equalizer saving India the blushes. He is Flipkart.

The internet was filled with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu interviews days before the Bangladesh match for the custodian had made as many as 11 saves in India’s heroic draw against Qatar, becoming an overnight star. But then again, underdogs often pull off big upsets because they always come to a competition with zero expectations and nothing to lose; a star, on the other hand, has to perform with the weight of the country on his shoulders. 

And when Sandhu was asked to evolve from a dog to wolf, he chose to become a squirrel instead. His goalkeeping howler was not only unacceptable but punishable, and the second time he did that, fans had given their hopes up.

Manvir Singh is just a young and immature Robin Singh, to be precise. It was if, his school PT coach had suggested his parents that their son was tall so football would suit his physical features. The FC Goa striker showed no intellectual signs of a footballer, leave alone a striker, and was quintessential to India wasting a plethora of chances.

But, we know why he was selected. A human can change everything in himself but nature. And Igor Stimac, who was a sloth-like defender during his Croatia days, couldn’t think beyond how he has perceived football throughout his entire life – a defensive game. The heavens themselves had opened up and signalled Stimac that he needed to play attacking football. Apart from Jhingan, Pronay Halder was injured and Rowlin Borges was suspended, which meant India had little option but to play on the offensive.

However, all of that failed at the face of Stimac’s resolute will as he instructed Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad to play as holding midfielders, thereby cutting the chord of creativity through the middle altogether. Chettri, for all the Lionel Messi-esque stature he enjoys in the country, cannot shift to a number 10 at will – even Wayne Rooney couldn’t. 

To further reduce India’s chances of scoring, Stimac insisted his team to play long ball football throughout the 90 minutes against a side, who were more than happy to sit back and defend for their lives. Parking the bus is the easiest thing in football, ask Jose Mourinho, and there wasn’t any reason to think Bangladesh would do anything but.

India’s chances of qualifying for the next World Cup stage have plummeted massively after just one point in two home games, but what was far more disheartening for Indian football was the brand of football that was on show when the whole world finally decided to turn up and give them a chance. “We failed to capitalize on our chance,” read Chhetri’s tweet after the match, and that statement applies to more than just their displays on the field.

By extension, this failure would affect the massive ambit of non-cricketing sports as well which have seen little morsels of investments coming their way over the last few years. And while Indian sport have seen better heroes off the Indian football field in the likes of Sindhu, Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Sushil Kumar, Pankaj Advani, and many others, in a way, this 1-1 draw has echoes of the age-old Indian perception that India wouldn’t ever be a world power in any other sport after Cricket.

No amount of Viking claps and social media apologies could make anyone empathize with the Indian footballers. But, if heroism means to face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope, the fans coming out of the YBK on Tuesday night were definitely one in their own right.

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