Gurpreet Singh Sandhu laughs out loud. “If my hands start paining just by making saves, then I should die in chullu bhar paani (shame),” he says, the morning after he became only the fourth goalkeeper this year to stop a flashy, scoring-goals-for-fun Qatar side from finding the back of the net, and leading India to a goalless draw at the home of the Asian champions in their 2022 World Cup qualifier.
Qatar, the hosts of the 2022 World Cup, have been operating at a different level in 2019. They put six past North Korea and Afghanistan, four against a formidable UAE and three against Asian giants Japan. Against India, they had 27 shots at goal; 11 on target.
Captain Hassan Al Haydos tried six times – cutting in from wide positions on the left, aiming for the corners. Almoez Ali, the Sudanese-origin forward who is among Asia’s best, had a couple of stabs from close range. Abdelkarim Hassan unleashed a missile from roughly 30 yards out. And Portugal-born Qatari international Ro-ro aimed at the bottom left corner from the same distance.
The Asian champions had a go from all angles. But the 27-year-old custodian had them all covered – and on the rare occasions he was beaten, either the goalpost came to his rescue or the strikers were sloppy.
For Sandhu, the pre-match intel came handy. He had studied exactly how, and where, the Qatari strikers prefer to shoot. “And then, you just have to stay ready. Stay on the feet and react,” he says. “It was a tough game.”
Sandhu’s tone understates just how tough it was. India kept a compact shape defensively – which forced Qatar to attack from wider areas – and crowded the box, leaving very little space for the strikers to try anything from inside the penalty area. That forced Qatar to take most of their shots either from sharp, wide angles or outside the box. And Sandhu, who is often accused of conceding soft goals, rarely lets anything in from long range.
When on the back foot against a quality opponent like this, India have often shown a tendency to lose focus and break down towards the later stages of a match – the 2019 Asian Cup group stage game against Bahrain, which followed a similar pattern where India conceded a late penalty to lose the match is an example.
However, to their credit, the players maintained the same intensity throughout, with the defence synchronising perfectly to catch the Qatari forwards offside every time they tried to slip past them. To do that for 90 minutes without losing concentration was refreshing, especially since Qatar were relentless.
The home side had a shot at goal almost every three minutes, but the fact that they spent almost every second of the match around India’s goal meant there was no time for Sandhu to rest. “I don’t think they missed open goals. The ones that they missed were all offsides. So credit where due, our defence held that line and making sure it was difficult for them to score,” Sandhu says.
For Sandhu, being in a situation like this isn’t new. There are at least three matches for his club Bengaluru FC where he’s faced such bombardment. Against North Korean club 4.25 in the AFC Cup match in Pyongyang, where he – once again – was single-handedly responsible for his team not losing. And then on a pre-season tour to Spain, where Bengaluru played Barcelona ‘B’ and Villarreal ‘B’ last year – the two matches he picks that taught him to perform under such pressure.
Against Barcelona ‘B’, Sandhu repeatedly kept out young striker Carles Perez in the first half before he scored a brace in the second. Perez has featured in each of Barcelona’s games this season and scored his first for the Spanish champions in the 5-2 win over Real Betis just before the international break. “Those two matches helped me learn how to deal with it and how to be in a game like this when you are on the back foot all the time,” Sandhu says.
That a goalkeeper should be called into action so frequently, though, raises questions over the team’s inferiority in the outfield. It’s a trait common to Indian teams across age-groups – even at the under-17 World Cup, India’s standout player was a goalkeeper, Dhiraj Moirangthem.
It’s a trend that’s likely to continue until the country develops midfielders with technical ability and knowledge to control play against teams superior to them.
For that reason – the gulf in class – the unlikely point India got against Qatar was celebrated by the team as if it was a win. It, in fact, is India’s best result in a competitive international match since beating UAE in Bangalore in 2001.
After getting spanked by Asia’s elite for more than a decade, the team has dished out two eye-catching performances – in the space of five days. The challenge now for the team will be to ensure they do not drop points against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, else all the hard work of Tuesday will mean nothing. “Imagine if we had a win in the bag leaving India and coming here and getting a point. It would’ve been ideal,” Sandhu says. “First two games: one where we could’ve done better and the other one where everyone expected us to not do well… things just go their own way in football.”