A bunch of Syrians – roughly two dozen of them – made a short trip from Rajkot to watch their national team play. The opponents were India – but it didn’t really matter whom they were playing. For most, it was the first time they were watching their national team play since the war in Syria began in 2011. Who and where they were playing mattered little to them.
Since the unrest began in the Arab nation, the Syrian national team has been playing its ‘home’ matches in Oman, Malaysia, Qatar and even Turkey. Anywhere but home, really. “So when we got to know they are playing in Ahmedabad, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to watch our heroes in flesh,” says Latakia native Rifa’at N’deeb, who is studying computer engineering at a university in Rajkot.
N’deeb isn’t a football fan. Yet, the disappointment of narrowly missing out on the 2018 World Cup – a rare moment that brought the country together – still lingers. This was the beginning of a new journey, with a completely new set of players – most travelling outside Syria for the first time. They were up against an equally young and inexperienced Indian side, who – at 101 – are ranked 17 places below them in the world rankings.
The last round-robin match of the Intercontinental Cup ended in a 1-1 draw. On the eve of the draw for the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifiers, the outcome pleased both sets of coaches. Not the result as much as the performances of the players.
From India’s perspective, there are plenty of takeaways from this match. It’s the best they have played under new coach Igor Stimac, who also seems to have found answers to a lot of questions heading into the serious business of the qualifiers.
Stimac has tried 27 different players in his two months, and five matches, as India coach. On Tuesday, he seemed to have found the right combination; especially the midfield, which is young and quick and once of the most exciting line-ups India have had in quite some time.
In the centre are Anirudh Thapa (21) and Amarjit Singh Kiyam (18); on the wings are Udanta Singh (23) and Lallianzuala Chhangte (22); in front of them, and just behind Sunil Chhetri, is 22-year-old Sahal Abdul Samad, the UAE-born midfielder who has made a solid impression because of his playmaking abilities since making his international debut in May.
The five of them got a rare outing together on Tuesday and they caught a technically-superior Syria by surprise with their flamboyant style, showing thinking and awareness that has been lacking in the Indian team for major part of this decade. Of course, these are early days – whether these players can perform at this level consistently and in pressure matches like the qualifiers remains to be seen.
What would also come as a relief to Stimac is that finally someone else apart from Chhetri scored. India’s only goal of the match came from 18-year-old Narender Gahlot. The centre-back, playing only his second international, leapt over the 6-foot tall Tamer Haj Mohamad to head home Thapa’s ball from a corner in the 52nd minute.
A headache for Stimac throughout the tournament has been the defence. With Sandesh Jhingan injured and Anas Edathodika not match-fit yet after announcing his return from retirement, Stimac has been forced to play makeshift central defensive pairs. Against Syria, Gahlot and Rahul Bheke (originally a full back) paired up in the centre while Pritam Kotal and Mandar Rao Desai (a winger) played as full backs.
It worked for sometime but the lack of options showed when he replaced Desai with Jerry Lalrinzuala. The 20-year-old Mizo wasn’t able to cope up with the pace of Syrian forwards and conceded a penalty in the 78th minute with a needless shoulder push on Syrian legend Firas Al Khatib, who went on to score from the spot.
Syria, who needed a win to qualify for the final, put India under considerable pressure in the closing stages of the match, but the hosts held on for a draw. The happiest faces in the stadium after the final whistle were of the North Koreans, who made the cut for the final and will face surprise qualifiers Tajikistan on Friday.