SAFF Cup 2023: It’s time we keep the faith on Chhetri’s 'Blue Tigers'

The Indian men's football team emerged victorious in the SAFF Championship 2023 defeating Kuwait in shootout

The Indian men's football team rejoices with the SAFF Cup at Bengaluru’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Tuesday, July 4. (photo courtesy: @IndianFootball/Twitter)
The Indian men's football team rejoices with the SAFF Cup at Bengaluru’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Tuesday, July 4. (photo courtesy: @IndianFootball/Twitter)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

It was really an unusual sight to see a capacity crowd of around 25,000 chant Vande Mataram at the Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on Tuesday night, July 4, as Sunil Chhetri and his men rejoiced with the SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship trophy. Such emotions, or patriotic fervour, were the preserve of the Indian cricket teams one thought and hence, the change was heartening.

Two titles — first the Intercontinental Cup and now this one in a space of three weeks — has suddenly made the mood upbeat. It may be presumptious to say that Indian football is finally beginning to turn the corner, but the recent campaign of the ‘Blue Tigers’ and the charisma of Chhetri has shown that it can sell and trend bigtime on social media as well.

The attendances on India’s match days in the garden city, the Indian captain’s home for quite a few years now. signalled a departure from about five years back when Chhetri’s famous appeal to fans erupted on Twitter. Disturbed by the lukewarm response during one of their campaigns in the Intercontinental Cup, he wrote: ‘’I mean it’s not fun to criticise and abuse on internet. Come to the stadium, do it on our face, scream at us, shout at us, abuse us, who knows one day we might change you guys, you might start cheering for us…’’

The talismanic Indian skipper, who emerged as the highest scorer at the SAFF event and also walked away with the Most Valuable Player’s (MVP) trophy, again took upon the role of an influencer last year. As the final round of the qualifiers for the Asian Cup was about to start in Kolkata, Chhetri urged the City of Joy to fill up the cavernous Salt Lake Stadium. The fans responded as India earned back-to-back spots in the Asian Cup finals for the first time.

From indifference to an air of optimism, how did this current lot manage to swing the mood of the football fans in the last three to four years? It’s not that there haven’t been the odd bright sparks here and there, like opening with a comprehensive win against Thailand in the 2019 Asian Cup or the famous goalless draw against Asian champions Qatar in the World Cup qualifier at Doha, thanks to the superhuman efforts of goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

However, such false dawns have always dotted Indian football’s journey over the past few decades. It needed some tangible results and some form of consistency to capture the imagination — and the boys of Igor Stimac delivered just that in style a year back to book their rights to fight with Asia’s elite in Qatar next January.

If Chhetri had been inspirational in bringing about a change in the team’s fitness culture and work ethic — the group found an able guidance under the father figure Stimac. An early inductee of the Croat, a member of the third-place finishers in ’98 World Cup, was an unassuming compatriot in his mid-Sixties called Luca Radman.

Called the ‘Professor’ by the boys, Radman had been a former Olympic weightlifter who had handled several challenging jobs, including being the fitness coach of their Class of ‘98 and knew Stimac since a teenager. If the likes of a young Chhangte, Aniruddh Thapa or senior pro Sandesh Jhingan do not betray any signs of tiring, a lot of credit has to go to Radman for the hours of strength and conditioning work he had put in with them.

‘’They may not have the perfect game, but they are not afraid of big names anymore. It’s in this context that I remember the words of Bob Houghton, my earlier national coach and one of my biggest influences, who said that you cannot have the skills of a Ronaldo or score goals like him, but nobody can stop you from working as hard as him,’’ Chhetri said in an interview last year.

This simple philosophy, easier said than done, has worked wonders for the Indian captain. If his men are ready to follow suit and are not fazed by the bigger stage in the upcoming challenges, then there are good reasons to believe in these boys!

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