It hurts, it pains, but India prefer the journey to inner self

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There was no dearth of it in the Indian Football Team dressing room after a heart-wrenching loss at the hands of hosts Malaysia in the Merdeka Tournament semi-final on Friday.

The Blue Tigers, well and truly, feel “robbed” – of a win, of a shot at winning a prestigious tournament, but most importantly, of one more match in the FIFA International Window in October 2023. Despite the scoreline, a 2-4 defeat at the hands of hosts Malaysia in the Merdeka Tournament semi-final, India’s performance in front of a partisan crowd at the Bukit Jalil Stadium was well received, even by the local fans present in the arena.

A disallowed goal, a soft penalty, and a handball inside the hosts’ penalty area that was brushed off will be talked about in the bastion of Indian Football, each a hard pill to swallow for the Blue Tigers. The Indian dressing room was dejected after the match, but that sense of desolation soon turned into one of introspection.

The coaches and the players went through it all, the good, the bad and the ugly; those who were not happy with their own performances accepted their mistakes and apologised for letting down the good performers. It is all part and parcel of what makes a team a team that has no ‘I’ in it. We win together, we suffer together, but most important of all, we pick each other up in desolate times, the All India Football federation (AIFF) sources said.

India head coach Igor Stimac was clearly not happy with the way things panned out, but he did focus on things that the Blue Tigers needed to improve.

“In some situations, we were not putting the ball into the box in time. We were mostly waiting too long and the crosses were being blocked, or we took too long to take our shots. In football, once you get close to the box, you need to keep thinking about how you will score the goal. We need to improve our decision-making,” he said.

Stimac’s sentiments were echoed by captain Sunil Chhetri, who scored India’s second goal of Friday night, the 93rd international goal of his career.

“It’s not right to speculate what could have been if some decisions had gone our way. Having said that, if the goal was allowed at 3-3, things could have been different for us,” he said.

“We have ourselves to blame. We conceded the fourth goal when we should have defended well. That was at least in our control. We had the momentum, we were controlling the game in the second half, but the fourth goal killed it,” said Chhetri.

The Indian Football Team, at the end of the day, has bigger battles on the horizon to prepare for.

Two World Cup Qualifiers, away at Kuwait on November 16, and at home against reigning Asian champions Qatar on November 21, will be tough battles for the Blue Tigers, to say the least.

These matches also serve the purpose of preparing them for arguably even tougher tasks at the

AFC Asian Cup in 2024, where they will face Australia (January 13), Uzbekistan (January 18), and Syria (January 23) in Group B.

The result against Malaysia will hurt. Maybe for a day, maybe for two. Maybe even for a week. But

the performance was there for all to see and take plentiful swigs of hope from.

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