‘India can beat Qatar’

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ISL has groomed Indians to take on strong teams: : I.M. Vijayan

As he looks forward to watching India’s World Cup qualifier against Qatar, to be played at Doha on Thursday, I.M. Vijayan cannot help but think of a match he wouldn’t quite like to remember.

That match, a World Cup qualifier in 1996, was also against Qatar. India lost it by a tennis score — 6-0.

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“We played poorly, but that was the time when we didn’t have as much exposure — domestic or overseas — as today’s players,” Vijayan told The Hindu on Tuesday. “Those days we could rarely meet quality opposition. Things have changed quite a lot for the better in Indian football.”

Last meeting

So much so, he feels India can even turn the tables on Qatar this time around. “I think this Indian team can beat Qatar,” he said. “The goalless draw when they last played Qatar, in 2019, should give them a lot of confidence.”

It was a performance India can be proud of: against the Asian champion ranked No. 62 in the world at the time. Qatar is now ranked 58th while India is 105th.

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Vijayan, one of the all-time greats of Indian football, doesn’t feel such a huge gap will easily translate into victory for the host. “Because of the ISL, India’s footballers are well-equipped to take on strong teams,” he said. “When you are playing alongside and against top quality international footballers, you improve physically and mentally.”

Against Qatar, he feels Sunil Chhetri — back in action after recovering from COVID-19 — will hold the key to India’s fortunes. “He is my favourite Indian player,” says Vijayan.

“Defender Sandesh Jhingan, midfielder Ashique Kuruniyan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu also have crucial roles to play.”

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When he thinks of Qatar, he also thinks of Xavi, the Spanish legend who is now manager of Doha’s Al Sadd club. The former Barcelona midfielder, who helped Spain win the 2010 World Cup, had recently put out a video on Twitter wishing Vijayan on his birthday.

“I was surprised and happy when I saw the video,” said Vijayan. “I had met Xavi on a few occasions; I was introduced to him by Shafeer Korea, who has designed the Qatar jersey and who hails from my native place of Thrissur. I always enjoyed watching the great Spain and Barcelona teams he was part of.”

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