How Qatar-India made Xavi lose his fingernails, and Sunil Chhetri his voice
Sunil Chhetri, who missed featuring in India's World Cup qualifier against Qatar in Doha on September 10 due to illness, admits he lost his voice from celebrating after India played out a goalless draw against the reigning Asian champions. Chhetri added that watching former Spain and Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez chew his nails in nervous tension was one of the most memorable sights for the Indian team.
"He [Xavi] coaches there now, and is a big influence behind why Qatar play the Barcelona way," said Chhetri, who is yet to recover fully from fever and hence sat out reigning Indian Super League (ISL) champions Bengaluru FC's first day of pre-season training on Friday. "Even their coach [Felix Sanchez] was in Barcelona before. Xavi and he were both doing this [mimics action of chewing fingernails], and I was like, 'Wow! This is nice!'"
Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who stood in for Chhetri and produced a stellar performance, called it the "most satisfying" result he had ever got in an India jersey. "I could the see the amount of effort everyone had put. It was unfortunate not to have Chhetri bhai, because he's a player you always want, and the kind of things he does on the pitch is incredible," Gurpreet said, adding that he "lost count" of the number of saves he made, but enjoyed the occasion because he needed to be switched on at all times.
"Regarding captaincy, for me it was just added responsibility that I do my job well in the first place. If you don't set an example, it won't help the other players seeing that one of the senior players is not performing up to the mark."
Chhetri admitted that he was crying before the first minute of the game, forced to sit out due to weakness from his indisposition. "Everyone dislikes not playing. I hate it," he said. "I was cribbing and ill, but the moment the game [started], I was screaming the entire 90 minutes."
"I told someone that we only got one point to show (for our efforts) but it just changed everything for us. Now when we come to the camp, it will be a different team, with the confidence of knowing what you can do if you train well."
Gurpreet called his one-handed save off Qatar left-back Abdelkarem Hassan in the dying minutes of the first half, his favourite save of the night, "It looked very easy on television, but it wasn't, because I had some traffic in front of me and I saw the ball very late." He added that the 2-1 defeat to Oman, where he had a good performance too, taught him to retain his focus till the final whistle in Doha. "I have had moments like that, even in the Oman game, where I felt it was going well, but then things can go south very easily. I was not trying to think about it -- I was just like, 'Just hold on! We're almost there,'" he said.
As the clock ticked over the hour mark, Chhetri became more restless with the finish line in sight. "From the 60th minute onwards, I was just praying for time to pass," he said. "By the 80th minute, when they got desperate and we got three or four chances to counter, I was thinking, '10 minutes more, and we're going to score.'
"If the game went on, trust me, we would have scored. They were (getting drawn into) two-on-two and both times their defender had to lunge at Udanta [Singh]. We would have got a penalty or we would have scored."
Chhetri, whose fastidiousness for a clean diet is well-known, admits to having cheated with two pieces of cake and some kheer (rice pudding) once the final whistle sounded.
"I went down, hugged everyone...probably gave them all the virus," said Chhetri. "I even kissed Rowllin [Borges]. I was screaming in the hotel and I had already lost my voice. I didn't know what I was doing or saying. I was so proud that I was a part of that team.
"It was one of those days where everything worked."