The Blue Tigers came so close yet seemed so far from making it to the round of 16 stages of the tournament.

A presence in the box that worsened matters, a presence in the box that brought parity. A toe poke for that broke the hearts of millions, a toe-poke that raised hopes. India fell to Bahrain on that fateful night three years back. Two contrasting stories, but with a similar ending – the team exiting the competition.

Let’s take you back to 2019. The year had just started and the world did not know a virus called COVID existed. Meanwhile, the Indian football team was bracing itself for a tough test in the United Arab Emirates. They were to take on the hosts, Thailand and Bahrain in Group A of the AFC Asian Cup 2019. The preparations were ripe, the team had a strong core and the right balance of youth and experience.

In the opening encounter, Stephen Constantine’s boys blew minds away. Thailand are no mean Southeast Asian nation when it comes to the beautiful game, but India had different ideas. The night saw a brace from the ever-so-reliable Sunil Chhetri and an audacious chipped goal from wonderkid Anirudh Thapa. A cool finish from “Mizo Sniper” Jeje Lalpekhlua sealed the evening for India in the build-up to the Bahrain game.

Sunil Chhetri
Sunil Chhetri scored a brace in India’s historic win against Thailand (Courtesy: AFC Media)

The performance had set them in the right stead and several quarters were calling the Blue Tigers the wildcard for the tournament. The opening performance had in its underbelly a system, a well-designed plan coupled with a will to win at all costs that Constantine had put in place over the years. In the next game against hosts UAE – inarguably more difficult opponents – India had to prove that the first win was no fluke.

And they did just that. The lads gave everything on the pitch, with captain Chhetri coming close with the first chance of the game, heading straight at the keeper from six yards out. Udanta Singh hit the post in the second half and Ashique Kuruniyan came close as well. The match ended 2-0 in UAE’s favour, but with a little more luck, it could’ve gone either way. Up next were Bahrain – the team that stood between India and the Round of 16 stages.

The Indian players were suffering several niggles and yet, an almost full-strength squad walked out to take on what could be the biggest game in India’s history in over a decade. With tired legs but determined minds, not all mountains can be scaled. The job was tenacious and the Blue Tigers fought till the very end. All they needed was to eke out a point and it looked safe as they defended a free-kick from inside the box in the 73rd minute with some brave closing down.

Pronay Halder AFC Asian Cup 2019 India Bahrain
Pronay conceded a late penalty that knocked India out of the tournament (Courtesy: AFC Media)

But, it wasn’t to be. The armband bearer for the night, Pronay Halder toe-poked Hamad Mahmood Alshamsan and brought him to the ground in a lapse of concentration, after an evening of immense hard work to protect any half-spaces behind him. India’s party was gate-crashed and Bahrain and Thailand joined table-toppers UAE in the next round. India’s hopes came crashing.

Against Kerala Blasters in the second leg of ISL 2021-22 playoffs, Halder toe-poked from point-blank range to score Jamshedpur’s only goal over two legs, giving hope to fans. His toe pokes have been pretty defining over the last four years, I tell you. As India play Bahrain on March 23, 2022, after that forgettable and heartbreaking night from 2019, emotions will be rife. A lot has changed – from the coach to the core of the squad. What continues to be the same are India’s aspirations to become a force at the continental level, at the least.

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