Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was on the bench when, eight years ago, India lost 5-2 to Bahrain at the Asian Cup in Doha. On Monday, the goalkeeper overcame an anxious start to deny Bahrain multiple goal-scoring opportunities but was ultimately beaten by a stoppage-time penalty, converted by Jamal Rashed. The 1-0 defeat knocked India out of the Asian Cup.
Speaking to The Indian Express on Tuesday, Sandhu – one of the captains of the team – said the team went into a defensive mindset, knowing that they were just 90 minutes away from becoming the first Indian team to qualify for a knockout round of the Asian Cup. “It’s not in your control, but sometimes it happens…”
The 26-year-old also hailed outgoing coach Stephen Constantine, saying the players are in a much better shape than they were when the Englishman took charge four years ago.
Excerpts from an interview:
What was the game-plan going into the Bahrain match? And what happened?
The plan was not to concede because it would’ve put us in a bad, bad situation. We knew they (Bahrain) needed a win. So they were desperate and we just needed to be patient. But they turned out to have more quality and numbers in attack while we were not able to use the ball much after winning it and that cost us later in the game.
Was it the pressure or fear of playing a game of such significance?
I don’t know if there was nerves, pressure or fear. I feel mentally you tend to think about not giving it away at this stage because you are so close to making it (to the next round) that you start having that defensive mentality. It’s not in your control but sometimes you get it. That’s what was happening last night – we were concentrating so much on not conceding that we couldn’t attack much.
Stephen Constantine steps down as India coach after Asian Cup exit
The general opinion is unless India has one strong league and stable development structure, the national team won’t have technically good players. You think it’s a serious problem?
For sure, having one strong league will help. But in my opinion, we don’t lack in talent. There were very, very good players in the team and there were very good players that missed out as well. So there is no lack of talent. It’s just how you get coached, you know. We have got good coaching in the last 4-5 years because of the ISL. So it’s just been five years. When you give it time, when you see some young players get good coaching at an early age… hopefully, after 10-11 years of them getting good coaches will end up with better technical players. I don’t think we lacked technically good players. We have them not just in the national team, but also the league.
Overall, how do you look back at the campaign?
I look at these games as a learning curve, not only personally but as a team. We did better than what people expected us to do, but at the same time not as good as people expected us to, especially in the last match. But overall, I am really proud of the boys. We didn’t lack in commitment and work ethic. We could have done much more. But we need to move on and make sure we reappear at this stage because it’s very, very, very crucial for us as a nation to participate in the Asian Cup every single time.
Stronger teams have so far shown reluctance to play friendlies against India. Do you think, regardless of the Bahrain match, that might change?
For sure. Whoever I’ve met during the Asian Cup feels that. I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to (Oman goalkeeper) Ali al Habsi and he was all praise about how we’ve played as a team. He said we just need to keep working hard because this is the stage where we should be playing. I am pretty sure we have earned some respect in Asia as well and hopefully we’ll come back to this stage and fight even harder.
How do you look back at Constantine’s four-year stint?
I’ll remember Stephen as a coach very close to me because he gave me my international debut. He has done a lot for Indian football and the national team in the last 4-5 years. I am very thankful to him. I wish we could do more. I believe we are in better shape as players than what we were when Stephen took over. He helped us make ourselves a unit, a team. I think because of him we were very united and together throughout the Asian Cup.
What kind of a coach you think the national team needs?
That’s for the federation to decide, who comes in. But as a player, I would love to have a coach who is a good man-manager and who will handle players with ease. And, of course, be a good coach!