With thousands of fans in attendance, the mecca of Indian football provided the setting for another iconic night, on which both the present and future of the national team shone.

“Ma’am, can I click a selfie with you?” As soon as the match ended two fans rushed towards Sonam Bhattacharya, the better half of Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri. The captain had scored the opening goal of the match. Moreover, he’s also the “Jamai Babu” (son-in-law) of Kolkata like Amitabh Bachchan, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Ashish Vidyarthi and a few other famous personalities. The match was won, and in style. India defeated Afghanistan 2-1, courtesy a 91st-minute blow from Sahal Abdul Samad. A magnificent 44,216 fans cheered to boost the Indian team’s spirit.

Atmosphere inside stadium

Apart from the Kolkata Derby, hardly can any instances be remembered where such electrifying crowd support was available. Yes, the tickets were free. The demand was there too! People stood in long queues in order to grab their share.

“India, India!!” chants dictated the air outside the box office while the tickets were being distributed a few days ago.

Afghnaistan vs India
Around 45,000 fans attended the match against Afghanistan

Similarly, yesterday the stadium was witness to an astounding crowd. A crowd that sang the famous and patriotic anthem “Bande Mataram,” while their heroes were fighting on the pitch. Even in the first half, we saw the fans turning on their flashlights to show their unity in the stands.

A different India

During the Afghanistan vs India match, there was perfect harmony among all the departments on the pitch. It seemed like a different India. Perhaps, this match portrayed the best ever performance under Igor Stimac’s tutelage. The fixture will always remain one of the most aggressive displays by the Blue Tigers in the Croatian coach’s era.

Watch Highlights: Afghanistan 1-2 India | AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers

Starting from Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s 74th-minute denial of Zubayr Amiri to Sandesh Jhingan’s stout presence and Anwar Ali’s incredible build-up, everything was in sync. Jeakson Singh and Suresh Singh took charge of the midfield. Liston Colaco was seen in a more central role and was perhaps India’s most fouled player on the night.

The unsung hero

The entire game had a mesmerizing flow, with the ball oscillating like a pendulum from Afghanistan’s half to India’s. However, the main action arrived at the very end. Probably, many fans would have thought it to be “game over” when Brandon Fernandes missed a crystal-clear opportunity in the 78th minute to break the deadlock. But they weren’t aware that India had fielded someone, who was unstoppable yesterday.

Ashique Kuruniyan
Kuruniyan troubled the Afghanistan defence all evening with his pace and direct runs

No, it wasn’t Sunil Chhetri. Neither was it Sahal Abdul Samad. Rather, it was Ashique Kuruniyan. Kuruniyan created problems for Afghanistan from the word go. Eventually, both goals were the left winger’s contribution. In the 84th minute, it was Kuruniyan who won India the free-kick just outside the Afghanistan box.

Sunil Chhetri was over it. The 37-year-old brought back the memory of Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kick against Spain in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Football is incomplete without fans

Just when the crowd felt that three points are inevitable, they were stunned by Zubayr Amiri. The defence is surely to be blamed for this. During the corner from which Afghanistan scored the equalizer, India had no one covering the two posts.

As a result, Amiri’s header went through at the near post, giving Sandhu no chance at all. Silence curtained the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, but not for long.

Sahal Abdul Samad goal celebration
Sahal Abdul Samad celebrates after scoring the winner against Afghanistan

Just like the players, the crowd were back to their feet as well. They started raising their voices when Udanta Singh dodged into the penalty box. The volume increased gradually as the ball met Ashique Kuruniyan, who in return passed it on to Sahal Abdul Samad. Finally, prior to Samad’s shot, the noise reached the ceiling.

When the ball ended its journey in the back of the net, perhaps no one could hear each other’s thoughts inside the stadium. The fans were celebrating.

Sahal Samad goal
Sahal mobbed by his teammates after scoring the winner

The players were enjoying the ecstatic moment. Sunil Chhetri, who was replaced after Afghanistan’s equalizer and was furious at Manvir Singh while trudging back to the bench was now back on his feet. It was game over for Anoush Dastgir’s side. Igor Stimac had the last laugh.

Fans are family

The best vibes of the game arrived when Sunil Chhetri and Sahal Abdul Samad interacted with the media. Both of them scored the goals, but their voices kept admiring and saluting the team effort. This is the Indian team that everybody wants to see. And the “team” doesn’t only comprise the players, but the think-tank, the management and ultimately the fans!

Sahal Abdul Samad
The Indian players lead the Viking clap after their win over Afghanistan

The visual where the whole team was involved in the Viking Clap seemed as if an entire family was enjoying their moment of joy. Everyone shared the piece of cake. One thing which the fans proved yesterday was that they will always be with the national team regardless of the situation the team is in. The fans have the Indian team’s back.

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