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19 May 2024, Edition - 3232, Sunday

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Sunil Chhetri steals the thunder on a rainy Mumbai evening



The wait seemed to go on forever. The referee decided to book Kenya’s Jockins Atudo for stepping into the box, running the clock even further. The box was out of bounds for the moment, for Sunil Chhetri — on the day he became the second Indian to reach 100 international caps — had stepped up to take India’s penalty.

It took around four minutes between the moment Chhetri was fouled and the spot-kick being taken. In between Patrick Matasi, the goalkeeper walked around the box, taking his time and giving Chhetri more moments to think, and hopefully overthink. But he was facing a shot against one of the strongest minds Indian football has known. Matasi dove to his right, got a hand to the ball, but there was no saving the shot. Nothing could stop him.

Moments earlier, a diagonal ball from the right had the 33-year-old lose his marker, jump up to chest the ball into control only to be fouled mid-air by a Kenyan defender. Replays suggested the forward was brought down outside the box. But it didn’t matter. Today was Chhetri’s day. Coach Stephen Constantine later commented: “I was thinking before the game, who’s going to spoil the game for him…”

Till then India had struggled to form any decent chance at goal. But now their captain was 12 yards away from opening the scoring, and he made no mistake. And he would strike again – in sublime fashion – to set the final 3-0 scoreline in India’s second match of the Intercontinental Cup. The crowd did its part on the day. The Mumbai Football Arena doesn’t have bucket seats, but the overall estimation for seating capacity is 7000. The official attendance though was 8890. An individual even announced on his social media account that he had “booked the entire stand number 4.”

This was a strong response to a plea Chhetri had uploaded on social media a few days back, asking supporters to throng to the stadiums. On the night, even the weather Gods appeared. The famed Mumbai rain had indeed arrived, bringing with it fireworks – thunder and lightening – to celebrate the centurion. What wasn’t expected was the neutralising effect the water-logged pitched had between the two teams that were lopsided on paper.

Kenya started the match as the better team, holding the ball and moving it better than the Indians who were struggling to find their footing. Their most meaningful chance though came in the 22nd minute. A loft from Gurpreet Singh Sandhu drew Matasi off his line. A weak clearance put the ball straight onto the unmarked Chhetri. With an open goal, Chhetri chipped audaciously only for the ball to narrowly sail over the bar. It wouldn’t be the only chip for Chhetri.

At the halftime break, the ground-staff took command, forking the turf to drain as much water as possible from the centre-circle. It allowed the midfield combination of Anirudh Thapa and Pronoy Halder to hold the ball and move it around with ease after the restart. It also freed Chhetri up in front and saved him the need to fall back to help in defence.

Then came the 68th minute, when he was brought down. Minutes later, a misdirected clearance sent the ball straight to Jeje Lalpekhlua outside the six-yard box. He took his chance, striking with his unfavored right foot into the top-right corner. Chhetri’s thunder though could not be stolen.

Substitute Balwant Singh setup Chhetri in a counterattack. Matasi again left his lin, giving Chhetri the chance to chip over. A man noted not to celebrate his goals, he jumped over the advertising board and charged toward the crowd with arms outstretched. The pose mirrored the one of him on a large banner that had been suspended in the stands.

Before the match could start, much before the water-logging began, vendors on the street outside took up their customary positions to sell jerseys before a football match. This time, their products had been modified. Against Chinese Taipei, the India jersey replica had nothing printed on the back. On Monday, all jerseys had the number 11 on it. Chhetri’s number, on Chhetri’s day.

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