Asian Cup diaries: Indian football's goodwill and the Nepali connection
The goodwill for Indian football at the Asian Cup encompasses a wide variety of journalists, who spot India on the accreditation lanyard and then start talking positively. The Asian Cup is a virtual mini-World Cup, and press from across Asia, Oceania, Europe and the Americas are present to keep an eye on emerging talents, or looking for angles on stories associated with coaches who have a link to their specific region.
The Indian Super League (ISL) seems to have marked India out as a football country to watch out for. Opposition teams too are talking about how the Indian team must have benefited from playing with big players and coaches who have made their way to India in recent years.
It also comes through from a lot of people working in Abu Dhabi, many from the sub-continent. A security guard at the university campus where the UAE team trains, tells us that he is eagerly looking forward to seeing how India play against the hosts, while a Pakistani gentleman helps the Indian journalists find a taxi, but not before a sequence of questions about why his team is not there in the Asian Cup.
"So, why is Pakistan not here?"
"Because they didn't qualify."
"Why did they not qualify?"
"Because they didn't play well enough."
"Why are they not good at football?"
"Maybe because they spend more time and energy on cricket?"
"Oh yeah, that sounds right."
Most of the taxi drivers I have met on this trip -- an average of four cab rides a day thus far -- have been Nepali. One of them was extremely happy to learn about the Indian team's 4-1 win against Thailand. He was even more excited to learn that three of the goals were scored by players of Nepali origin (Sunil Chhetri, like both Anirudh Thapa and my ride for the day, is apparently a Thapa if one uses his full name), and that the bench has another such player in Vinit Rai. My friend likes his cricket -- Sandeep Lamichhane has become a household name across the world, and hails from a village very close to his. He himself has been to Gorakhpur, where his father and uncle were posted while serving in the Indian Army's Gurkha regiment, though they have moved back to Nepal after retirement.
The same day, the return trip had another Nepali driver, Amrit Thapa, who was more of a football buff. He remembers the Bangabandhu Gold Cup final of 2016 which Nepal won with striker Nawayug Shrestha's hat-trick, and was happy to learn that I had commentated on that game. "Arre sir, agar paisa sahi se istemaal ho toh Nepal har sports mein aage hoga (If funds are utilised properly, Nepal will be world-beaters across all sport)," he says.
When Iran played Yemen on Monday night, the team lists would belie the gulf between the two teams. Only three Yemenis in the starting eleven play for teams back home, as opposed to four for Iran. That is largely because the Yemeni League has been suspended after the 2013-14 season due to the war.
Under Carlos Queiroz, former assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Iran have refined their game to the level that they gave a genuine scare to both Spain and Portugal last summer in Russia. The match begins with a spirited attack or two from the diminutive Yemen striker Ahmed Al-Sarori, who plays in the second division in Qatar, but before long, Iran have a 3-0 advantage on the back of a Mehdi Taremi brace.
The game is a physical, often hot-tempered affair, but at the end of it, while the Yemen players sink to their knees, the Iran players are the first to come up to them and help them to their feet and give them a pat on the backs.
"With more energy and focus, they will become a stronger team. This is football -- I think they will come [up]," says Rubin Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun, who was among the first to congratulate Saoud Al Sowadi, a valiant presence in the Yemen goal despite a 5-0 scoreline.
Not all football conversations in Abu Dhabi have been about the Asian Cup, though. A chatty taxi driver from Kumasi, Ghana called Felix, initiated one such conversation by asking what this writer had come to Abu Dhabi for. It wasn't difficult to explain the context to him -- his car was one of several in the city that have been decked with the Asian Cup official rear sunshade.
Felix is a die-hard Manchester United fan, and was deeply upset with his favourite club's decision to appoint Jose Mourinho (not surprisingly, he smiles ear-to-ear of late) because he thinks Mourinho of even the second Chelsea stint was a deeply divisive, unhappy figure as coach. Felix tried his best to get through me about which team I support, and was not convinced that I have none. When at last I confessed that I used to like AC Milan back when Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini played together, he made a statement that would make me smile.
"Now imagine, if one Indian footballer goes on to become an AC Milan star, how would that make you feel?"