“The biggest difference I feel is the belief. You can see and tell these guys believe they can do it,” states former Indian international keeper Virender Singh who is also a first-hand witness to one of India’s best days in this century of football.
Eighteen years is a long time and yet some days create such an impact in one man’s life that it makes them unforgettable. On April 8th, 2001 Indian football experienced one of its finest days this century as a Jules Alberto goal helped the Blue Tigers to a 1-0 victory in their first game of the FIFA World Cup qualifier.
The victory gave many in Indian football hope that the tide was about to turn. That, however, wasn’t to be as the rest of the qualifiers held nothing much of note.
The game saw the Indian defence give their all to secure the valued three points with keeper Virender Singh called into action time and again. Now working as the goalkeeping coach at FC Goa, the former Indian international recalled his time between the sticks in that game, and the improvement in Indian football in general.
“It was an upset (the 2001 game). They were a really strong side and came at us all guns blazing. On that day, however, we were able to take our chance and get the better of them. I remember seeing their flummoxed faces. They really didn’t expect us giving them such a fight,” states Virender.
“As usual, people just remember that goal. What is forgotten is the immense pressure that the backline and I were under for the rest of the game. It was, however, just a one-off result.”
Come 2019, India again has the opportunity to get one over the United Arab Emirates; this time at one of the biggest stages - the AFC Asian Cup 2019.
The Blue Tigers got off to a fantastic start in their campaign – beating Thailand 4-1 in the opener. They currently lead Group A on points and with 16 teams advancing from the 24, India might seal their qualification for the next stage with a point tonight.
A goalkeeping coach now, Virender states that there is a sea-change in Indian football these days.
“It was so heartening to see our guys on the offensive in the biggest stage in Asia. You could feel that the boys believed and that only comes because they believe in their ability,” quips Virender.
“This all comes from better infrastructure, better coaching and also better competition. The standard of pitches, the standard of training and the players you play alongside as well as against has improved dramatically.
“That is one big reason why the Indian team looked so confident.”
Speaking of the game ahead, Virender stated, “The UAE side are of course still favourites and it will be naïve to think that we will go and roll them over following the last game.
“Our boys, though, will be really up after the last game. I would venture to say that conditioning wise, this is one of the best teams I have seen wearing the Indian blue. We will have to be vigilant and take our chances just like when we did in 2001.”
All of India will have its eyes glued to their television sets as the game is set for a 9:30 pm kick-off. As history beckons Indian football, it will also take a performance of a lifetime from the boys in Blue to pull off the desired result.