Until last week, Guam had never won a World Cup qualifying match. The last time they were a part of the campaign, in 2002, they were thrashed 16-0 and 19-0 by Tajikistan and Iran. On Tuesday, the tiny US territory scripted one of its most famous wins, handing a much-fancied India a humiliating 2-1 defeat to record their second win in the qualifying campaign in a span of five days. They had defeated Turkmenistan by a solitary goal last week.
Guam, ranked 174th in the world and 33 places below India, are now the surprise leaders of Group D, while India find themselves at the bottom of the five-team group having lost both their matches so far.
Despite the defeat to Oman, Constantine chose to start with the same XI but they were thoroughly outplayed by Guam. The hosts went ahead after 38 minutes when Brandon McDonald headed in Ryan Guy’s long throw-in. Travis Nicklaw extended the lead in the 62nd minute when he received a long pass from his elder brother Shawn and fired home on the turn.
Sunil Chhetri, who was named captain for the match, scored a consolation goal for India in injury time. India could hardly manage a shot on target throughout the match and the closest they came to scoring was in the 88th minute, but substitute Jeje Lalpekhlua’s free header was directed straight at Guam goalkeeper, who saved it without much trouble.
More than their World Cup ambitions — which were anyway unrealistic — the defeat severely affects India’s Asian Cup qualifying chances. Third-placed teams from every group are guaranteed a place in the final round of qualification.
India coach Stephen Constantine had earlier said his ‘realistic target’ was to qualify for the Asian Cup but the two back-to-back defeats have put India in a spot of bother.
To finish third, they will now have to win their home and away leg matches against Turkmenistan and follow up with a win over Guam when they visit India later this year. Even this might not be enough if Guam carry on their fairytale start to the campaign in the later stages. To make it worse for Constantine’s men, Turkmenistan held Iran to a 1-1 draw, which means India is the only team yet to open its account in Group D.
‘Payless Strykers’, US mix
One wonders whether India were also guilty of underestimating their opponents. The last time these two sides met, in 2013, India had posted a convincing 4-0 win. But the islanders have been always been tricky opponents and have risen in stature in the last few years.
Being a US territory, most of their players study and play football in the major and minor leagues of America. Their English coach Gary White made full use of the heritage card and fielded seven American-origin players in his starting XI, including two who ply their trade in Major League Soccer, including teams like LA Galaxy.
“Yeah, we used American-based players to the fullest extent. We used the heritage card to the best of our abilities, and within the rules,” White said.
But it isn’t just the US. Some of the others in their squad play for the local sides Quality Distributors, Guam Shipyard and, the pick of the lot, Payless Supermarket Strykers. Their players aren’t full time footballers either. Take for instance their captain Jason Cunliffe, who is an attacking midfielder for the team but is a banker by profession.
In the end, the experience of playing in a more competitive environment and superior physicality gave Guam the advantage from the opening whistle. “We are disappointed. Today the difference was very much visible between a group of players who have the best football education and the rest. 75 percent of the players who represented Guam have been born and brought up in the US and that made a huge difference,” Constantine conceded.
Constantine also lamented the lack of ‘football knowledge’ among Indian players. Inexperience too has played a big role in India’s defeats. More than half of the squad has played less than five international matches, with 13 players making their India debut in the three matches Constantine was in charge before Tuesday’s game, including the five against Oman last Thursday.
The players got to understand each other better during the match as they hadn’t played a match together before last Thursday’s game against Oman. Constantine wasn’t happy with the preparation period for the two matches either. He had just four matches with the team before the Oman match and only two sessions ahead of the Guam tie. “I am not trying to make any excuses but we need more time with the players,” he had said earlier.
India’s next match is the toughest of the lot, when they entertain Asia’s highest-ranked team Iran in Bangalore. Constantine hoped he would get more time with the players before the key fixture, along with a friendly match to test their preparedness.
Chhetri completes half century
Chhetri became the first Indian footballer to score 50 international goals on Tuesday, scoring the consolation goal in India’s 2-1 defeat against Guam in the World Cup qualifier. Former captain Bhaichung Bhutia is India’s second-highest scorer with 42 goals in 107 matches while IM Vijayan has 40 goals from 79 games. This, meanwhile, was Chhetri’s 87th match.