MUMBAI: It was the perfect advertisement for Indian football in India’s commercial capital. The city was hosting its first international football friendly since 1955, and it didn’t take time for the stadium to find its voice. The Indian team put on an entertaining and winning performance, overcoming Puerto Rico 4-1. And the one man the Mumbai fans backed heartily — Sunil Chhetri — delivered the punch lines.
India was fitter, faster and better at seizing chances than their higher-ranked opponents (114 to India’s 152 in the FIFA rankings). The hosts were good, but Puerto Rico made them look better. The Central American team arrived in Mumbai just over 24 hours before the game after a 14-hour flight from New York. Three of their main players decided to stay home after a payment dispute and the squad had one light training session ahead of the game.
They started well, holding onto the ball coolly as India anxiously chased them down. The visitors were also the first to get on the scoreboard, in the seventh minute, when Emmanuel Sanchez slotted home from the penalty spot after Jackichand Singh brought down Puerto Rico’s Elliot Velez in the box.
The game on Saturday marked a change in the pecking order for the hosts: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the 24-year-old goalkeeper, led the team out for the first time. Chhetri may have surrendered the captaincy to Sandhu, but he was still the team’s go-to man on the field. He was the midfield pivot around which this young Indian team, which relies heavily on pace, revolved.
On the eve of the game, India coach Stephen Constantine had called him “irreplaceable”. And the little big man of Indian football showed why. He had a role to play in the first three goals.
In the 17th minute, Narayan Das got India’s first goal when he scored as a Chhetri free-kick deflected off the post. Twelve minutes later, he got the free-kick right on target as his strike found the net. India’s third goal came off a series of well-timed moves. Defender Pritam Kotal ran in and crossed the ball precisely to a rising Chhetri, who headed the ball to Jeje Lalpekhlua, who scored in the 33rd minute. Puerto Rico players, most of whom are not part of the first squad, looked fatigued and struggled with the humid conditions. And the hosts showed no mercy, stretching their advantage in the 56th minute when Jackichand struck off a Eugeneson Lyngdoh pass.
While it was the ideal result for the team, trying to follow the lead of teams like Puerto Rico to have shot up in the rankings in a short time, coach Constantine and Chhetri were aware that it was only one international game out of the way. Though they had beaten a higher ranked team, it came with riders. Nonetheless, India have made the most of their home advantage in the Maximum City.