Sunil Chhetri relives ‘roller coaster’ night in Qatar

Thursday, September 10, marked the one-year anniversary of India’s defensive masterclass against Qatar in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

By Subhayan Dutta

An unwell Sunil Chhetri was absent from the Indian football team that frustrated Qatar in their own backyard at the FIFA World Cup qualifiers last year, but the skipper lived every moment from his hotel room that evening.

Clubbed alongside Oman, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Qatar, the Asian champions were the toughest opponents the Indian football team could face in Group E.

India started their World Cup campaign with a home loss to Oman in the first group match and Sunil Chhetri knew the Blue Tigers needed to carve out a positive result against the FIFA World Cup 2022 hosts.

“Since the draw was made, I was looking forward to the challenge [against Qatar],” Sunil Chhetri wrote in his column on the AIFF website.

“It was extremely important we got something out of this match, especially after our result in Guwahati against Oman,” he added.

Though Igor Stimac had young Manvir Singh taking Sunil Chhetri’s place to spearhead India’s attack, the onus was on India’s defence, which had Rahul Bheke, Sandesh Jhingan and Mandar Rao Desai in front of goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

Qatar would go on to test India’s backline relentlessly for the next 90 minutes, but an impressive Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was equal to the task at hand as India forced a goalless draw.

Sunil Chhetri wasn’t part of the Indian team that drew against Qatar during the FIFA World Cup qualifiers in 2019. (Image: AIFF)

Eventually, the Blue Tigers emerged as the only Asian team to remain undefeated against the continental champions in 2019.

Sunil Chhetri watched the entire match from his hotel room and the skipper remembers not being able to relax for a minute, despite being unwell.

“Sitting in front of the television, it was getting harder and harder for me to control my emotions as the game progressed,” Sunil Chhetri recalled.

“It was like riding a roller coaster. I was shouting at the screen as if I was on the touchline myself.

“Every minute went by like an hour. But, at the end, we registered a memorable result and things turned out to be rather 'sweet', in more ways than one,” the 36-year-old Chhetri added.

Though India’s chances of advancing to the next stage are slim - just three points from five matches - the goalless draw against Qatar remains one of the most cherished results.

“One year on from the result, I still find it hard to recall how many times I have felt the way I felt that that night in Doha,” Chhetri said.

“I couldn't be on the pitch with my fellow Blue Tigers but the way they played and the heart they showed, they gave me a memory to cherish for a lifetime,” the proud captain added.