Asian Cup Diaries - Everybody wants Chhetri, an Iraqi dream come true

Yusuf before Iraq's game against Vietnam outside the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Debayan Sen

The Asian Cup is considered the World Cup for Asian nations, and one can see a glimpse of that in the playing styles on display. The West Asian nations (Saudi Arabia, Iran) are tough, rugged and play a fairly physical game, while those from further east (China, South Korea) are quick, technical and extremely clever at controlling the tempo in games. Then there are teams like India, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines and Turkmenistan, who are either all on debut or returning to this tournament after a leave of absence -- their styles are difficult to box into categories, but they pique the curiosity of all watchers just the same, exactly the way India did against UAE in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

India were in demand post the UAE game. During's Gurpreet Singh Sandhu's interaction with Indian journalists in the mixed zone, a member of the UAE support staff greeted his Indian counterpart with a warm hug, congratulated him for the game and said how much their team enjoyed the experience. Sunil Chhetri has already caught the eye, with the Arabic journalists waiting to speak to him instead of waiting for UAE's players.

Also see: Sunil Chhetri - India's Mr Football

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Asian Cup diaries: Indian football's goodwill and the Nepali connection

The media centre had been shut by the time the India's game finished, so a few of us journalists who wanted to grab something to eat were asked to join a couple of UAE-based Indian journalists, all still smarting from missing out on the satisfaction of seeing India beat UAE in an away match (for the record, that hasn't happened since 1979).

We found our way to a Pakistani restaurant famous for the variety and taste of the non-vegetarian fare on offer, but much to our dismay, everything but two items had already run out. We pulled the leg of our host, telling him this experience was meant for us to empathise with the Indian football team. The humour helped, as did the chanaa daal (chickpeas) and chicken pepper, both outrageously good!


The Iraq-Vietnam game, that Iraq won 3-2 was perhaps the contest of the tournament thus far. Rapidly-improving Vietnam snuck ahead a couple of times against the 2007 champions before Ali Adnan swerved a perfect free kick in the last minute of regulation time to pick up three points for Iraq.

It spoilt a pre-match prediction from Tai, a young fan who had travelled from Vietnam and was one of those who had turned out in T-shirts with the Vietnam flag as the theme. They were all enjoying themselves at the fan zone just inside the main gate of the stadium, where jugglers, drummers, stilt-walkers and merchandise-sellers were making for perfect backdrops.

Iraq fans also travelled from areas as far and wide as Kurdistan in the east, and Sweden in the west. Yusuf, 73, has been living in Sweden for 40 years now and has travelled to watch his national team play for the first time. One of his favourite players, Ali Hisny Faisal, was part of the Air Force Club team that had beaten Bengaluru FC to the AFC Cup title in 2016. Yusuf was not able to put into words how emotional he would be watching his team play, and the win was the icing on the cake. He watches their second game against Yemen before flying home and must be itching to watch the game in Sharjah on Saturday.


The oddest contest of this tournament might well have been Japan against Turkmenistan. Japan, at four Asian Cup titles, are the most successful team in the history of this competition, while Turkmenistan are here for the first time. Media contingent strength ratio, at a manual count, was about 300 to ZERO. One entire side of the Al Nahyan Stadium -- on a reasonably pleasant but humid Wednesday afternoon -- was occupied by Japanese fans at their loudest and proudest, while one could spot and count the TEN Turkmenistan fans, with their SEVEN flags to boot.

Incredibly, Turkmenistan led 1-0 at half-time through a long-range zinger from captain Arslanmurat Amanov. As four members of the Japan analytical support staff trooped off at half-time from the media tribune, the absence of a single such Turkmenistan official was glaring.

In all likelihood, so was coach Hajime Moriyasu's team talk, as Japan came out and took hold of the game to score three quick goals to win 3-2. Turkmenistan scored a late consolation and the ten fans went home happy.