Grand stage, robust antagonists: Blue Tigers await Asian heist

DOHA, QATAR: Just a couple of months ago, the India Senior Men’s Team went to Kuwait expecting a hostile reception after two feisty matches against Al Azraq in the SAFF Championship. However, what they saw in their first match of the FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifiers was something that amazed not only the Indian players on the pitch but also the worldwide fans watching on television.

Tens of thousands of Indian fans gathered at the Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium to witness the Blue Tigers begin their campaign with a 1-0 victory over their hosts.

History, more often than not, repeats itself, or so they say. In this case, yesterday came back just two months later when the Blue Tigers landed at the Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, for their preparatory camp ahead of the AFC Asian Cup 2023.

The arrivals gate of the airport was swamped with fans, most of them expats who had come to show their love and support for the national team stars, who played more than their part in energising the spirit of players jaded after a long day of travel.

India head coach Igor Stimac exclaimed about the key role that the fans have played. He said, “We love them! We know how much they expect from us, and we will do our very best to make them happy here in Doha. Hopefully, we can give them some happy moments.”

The rapturous welcome done, it was time for the Blue Tigers to get straight down to business as they commenced their pre-Asian Cup training camp in the Qatar capital. Having trained for over a week in Qatar, India are now solely focussed on their first match of Group B against the mighty former champions Australia (January 13).

It’s a packed schedule for the Indian football team, who head straight to the gym after breakfast, followed by a meditation session to bring down the adrenaline levels. A hearty lunch, followed by a couple of hours of rest, precedes the training sessions, where the lads slog it out for two and a half hours at the training ground.

“We wanted to come out here early, settle down properly, and not waste time travelling later. We started our work together, planned our schedule with four sessions in two days, followed by rest on the third day,” said Stimac.

One of the key areas that the coaching staff is currently working on away from the pitch is the confidence levels of the players ahead of such crucial matches.

“We have many players from Mohun Bagan SG, who have had poor results recently. So, we needed to bring the confidence back into these players who had low self-esteem when they joined us,” said Stimac. “But I’m also happy with how some of our players performed with their clubs, like Sahal Abdul Samad, who has been assisting a lot, and Sandesh Jhingan, who has stabilised FC Goa’s defence.”

Déjà vu from a not-so-distant past

An Asian Cup in Doha, with India facing Australia in their opening match of the competition seems all too familiar. It just so happens that the Blue Tigers began their 2011 Asian Cup campaign in the same manner in Doha.

This time as well, India are set to face the Socceroos in their first match, as they have been drawn in Group B alongside the Aussies (January 13), Uzbekistan (January 18), and Syria (January 23). Only two people remain in the current Blue Tigers side from the outfit that faced Australia 12 years ago – striker Sunil Chhetri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

One thing that has changed, however, is the amount of knowledge available on the opposition. “We didn’t have much knowledge of the Australian back in 2011. Not when compared to the minute details we have now,” said captain Sunil Chhetri. “We’ve watched their friendlies against Palestine (1-0) and Bahrain (2-0), so we know about the challenges we are facing ahead.

“I must admit, however, that with such familiarity, the fear factor goes out of the window,” he said.

Goalkeeper Gurpreet is relishing the opportunity to play one of the top sides in Asia: “It’s not an easy group to be in, but it’s where we should aim to be. Only when you face challenges and discomforts, do you know where you stand. Australia are a World Cup side, and Uzbekistan and Syria have also done quite well. But we should not think too low of ourselves. We’re also here on merit, and we will do our best to make the most of it.”

At the end of the day, belief could make all the difference for everyone. “We need to believe in the work you do, believe in your group, and the sky’s the limit for this batch. We must stay humble, keep improving, and hopefully do something special,” said Sandesh Jhingan.

Also Read: Punjab FC announces squad for Kalinga Super Cup, to face Chennaiyin FC in the first match

Also Read: Maharashtra Shores Through To Beach Soccer Finals In Diu Beach Games 2024

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