A goalless draw against Asian champions Qatar in the first-leg of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in 2019 in Doha remains one of the highlights of the career of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, goalkeeper of the Indian football team. He led India in that match in the absence of an ailing Sunil Chhetri.
“In Guwahati in 2019, after the 1-2 loss against Oman in our first match of the FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifiers, there was pin-drop silence in the dressing room after the final whistle. There was disbelief that we lost after leading 1-0 for 80 minutes. But amidst all that disbelief, there was belief to better it,” Sandhu told AIFF website.
The Indian team flew into Doha the next day for a match against Qatar.
“Sunil [Chhetri] bhai was there, but wasn’t there. He got ill. We could sense his frustration. So much so that he wasn’t even able to go to a single practice session, and even on the matchday against Qatar, he watched it on TV from his room,” Sandhu recalled.
“The plan on match day was to make life difficult for Qatar who are such a talented team. They had won the AFC Asian Cup earlier that year, and were buzzing after playing in the Copa America. We had to stay compact against them, and take our chances whenever we smelt a counter. Everyone was desperate to contribute — everyone was trying their best,” he said.
The first half ended goalless, and the Indian team’s confidence grew with it.
“We could gauge the frustrations around as the predictions that we would be whitewashed weren’t coming true. It allowed us to breathe a bit more. We realised we were heading in the right direction. ‘Take some blows guys, we can do it’ was the sentiment. The pressure was huge, but the belief was more,” Sandhu said.
“The dynamics were even better in the second half. Seeing Sahal, Udanta dribble past the best in Asia the ones who won the Asian Cup was a message which hit them hard. It was a great boost. We were not just defending, rather we were attacking and pushing them on the back foot on occasions.”
Sandhu was pleased with India’s performance in the second half.
“Abdulkarim Hassan, the best side-back in Asia, I guess, never expected an Indian winger (Udanta) to speed past him in two quick successions, making him breathe heavily. When I punched a Hassan Al Haidous free-kick and the ball went to Sahal, the rivals were caught unaware as Sahal latched on to it, and got past them. Eventually, a professional foul came to their rescue. That’s what pleases you doing the unexpected when nothing is expected of you,” he recalled.
Sandhu remembers two other matches fondly.
“I will always pick two other matches ahead of my performance against Qatar. The away match against Iran in the World Cup Russia 2018 Qualifiers in 2016 in front of a packed Azadi Stadium in Tehran will always remain on top of my list. Yeah, we lost 0-4, but I feel there was much more pressure in Tehran, than in Doha,” he recalled.
“The match against China in China also ranks high on my list. It required me to be at my best, and depicted my mentality, like all others.”
Sandhu is one of the three goalkeepers in the present team, now in Doha for India’s next World Cup qualifying matches against Asian champions Qatar (June 3), Bangladesh (June 7), and Afghanistan (June 15) at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, Doha.
Amrinder Singh and Dheeraj Singh are the other goalkeepers.