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Asian Games

Father figures Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan take India kicking and screaming into Saudi Arabia date

Asian Games: Sunil Chhetri, 39, and Sandesh Jhingan, 30, often looked in danger of losing patience with their younger Indian teammates during the Group A match vs Myanmar.

Father figures Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan take India kicking and screaming into Saudi Arabia date

Sandesh Jhingan in action at the Asian Games (Getty)


Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 24 Sep 2023 7:59 PM GMT

Hangzhou: After managing to play three matches over five days in the Asian Games here in China, the Indian men's football team has managed to earn a date against Saudi Arabia in the knockout stages.

Lack of sleep, lack of a single training session in China and several players slotting into roles they have never played before are some of the challenges the team has overcome to get here.

Several times during the last Group A match against Myanmar at the Xiaoshan Sports Center Stadium on Sunday evening, it looked as if the dream would come unstuck. But the 39-year-old Sunil Chhetri and the 30-year-old Sandesh Jhingan managed to lead a team of youngsters through, sometimes kicking and screaming.

"I try to lead with my actions instead of words, that is the sort of person I am. I slept properly for the first time last night. Now that we have a three-day break before the match against Saudi Arabia on Thursday, we can look forward to feeling a little normal. We shall have our first training sessions in China now," Jhingan said unironically at the end of the match.

Several times in the match, Jhingan and Chhetri looked in danger of losing their composure. Like when Jhingan shouted at left back Narender Gahlot (usually a centre back) for a misplaced pass in the second half, or when Chhetri screamed at Bryce Miranda for holding the ball too long on the left wing in the first half.

The eventual 1-1 draw was enough to send both teams through. Perhaps concerningly, India's 4 points from the group stage were all courtesy Sunil Chhetri's penalties.

Chhetri, speaking after the match, said he feels guilty for having 'forced' Jhingan to accompany him along with the rest of the team, which has an average age of less than 22.

"If Sandesh hadn't come along, I would have...", Chhetri trailed off.

"I'm guilty of secretly forcing him in different ways of getting him here. I realised it was only me and a lot of kids who haven't played before, all due respect to them. I was able to fish out only him in the end. He's an absolute warrior, his leadership, will to win is second to none... He looks calm, but he's not calm, you can ask the other Indian boys. He writes poetry, he's a thinker, but he's definitely not calm," the captain said.

Chhetri said that Jhingan and him usually keep some distance from the rest of the group off the field to give them space to express themselves. As for the two of them, they keep talking about their children, whether they have had their milk, and so on.

India's progress to the knockouts means that their two children will have to miss their fathers for a few more days, as they look to guide the young Indian team against Saudi Arabia - the senior team of which country beat FIFA World Cup champions Argentina less than a year ago.

Depleted Indian team has no bench strength

Despite the win and the fact that the Indian team can now have a real training session to prepare for the big match, the depleted nature of the side is obvious.

"I am proud of the boys, especially Chhetri and Jhingan, who led the team here despite all the circumstances. Three of our boys had fever today - Rohit Danu, Lalchhununga and Ayush Dev Chhetri," revealed coach Igor Stimac.

"There's a big gap between what I want them to do and what they are capable of doing without a single training session. The most important thing for a coach is the training pitch, but that was not possible, we had to do with meeting rooms. Four-five players had to play out of their positions - attacking midfielder as DM, centre back as LB. You cannot expect a good tactical game from such a unit. We will now study Saudi Arabia so that we can give them a hard time," he said.

Both coach and captain laughed as they spoke about the lack of bench strength, but one can assume they were not laughing in the heat of the moment.

"I wanted to take Sunil off in the 60th minute, but he's not listening to me, not listening to his coach," smiled Stimac.

Chhetri, who has been playing as a deep-lying playmaker instead of a striker for the most of the Asian Games, concurred: "A couple of times earlier, I asked for substitutions, but there was no one to come on."

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