“Ladies and gentlemen welcome to the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata, in the second leg of the FIFA World Cup 2030 qualifiers. It’s the hosts, the minnows- the Indian national team up against the mighty South Koreans. After the first leg surprisingly ended as a goalless draw in Seoul; thanks to the Indian defense’s resilience, today’s game will decide who will go to the World Cup. Can India turn the odds in their favor to win it and make it to the World Cup for the first time in their history? Whatever be the result, all I can assure you is that it’s going to be cracker of a game. So just do not go anywhere when we are just moments away from kick off. Stay tuned to your TV sets and we will be right back in a wink with live action,” commentator’s voice boomed from all the TV sets in the country.
It was an exceptional view in the Salt Lake stadium, Kolkata. The people of the country had emerged from its every corner to support their national team, and why not, after all it was the biggest match in Indian football history. Nobody had even thought that India could even compete in the qualifiers a decade back and now there they were, not only competing in it but had reached the last step. Though that last step was the only thing that mattered now and so they had the support of over hundred thousand people, and they it seemed that they were still pouring in. The stands were overflowing with the Indian support.
The stadium was bathed in white light, with thousands of tiny lights blinking every second just to capture that great moment, drums were beaten mightily and could be heard over the deafening cheering of fans and as the teams stepped on the pitch, the whole stadium went crazy in rapture. And definitely it could be the best night of the year for both set of fans and their team if they could manage a win.
South Korea was the only Asian nation to have competed in the World Cup more than ten times but this year’s qualifiers were something they would want to forget. Of course, unless they could win tonight.
The camera zoomed in on every face in the Indian team as they lined up for the national anthem; every one of them was a national hero now. The national anthem was sung, and the captains of both the teams came up for the coin flipping. The Indian captain, their goalkeeper, and undoubtedly their best player without whose supernatural saves they wouldn’t have made so far in the qualifiers, Jeet shook hands with the officials and his opposite number, the Korean captain.
South Korea attacked from left to right in all whites, while the Indians played in blue. And so the game kicked off and cheering increased many folds, from where they were getting so much energy Jeet wondered.
Jeet always had confidence in him. He knew he could do wonders. However, today he too was a bit nervous, everyone was, and even the people in the stands were but then they didn’t have to spend ninety more minutes with this Korean attack trying rip apart his defense. Can he do it again? Can he keep one more clean sheet? He asked himself.
He stood a foot ahead of his six yards box as he saw the two Korean strikers kicking off the game, passing back and moving fast towards his goal. They passed even further back from there, their defense soaking the pressure created by charging Indian players.
They passed square, moved the ball to and fro and by all means kept the possession of the first five minutes without causing any serious trouble for Jeet. He had no problem with them keeping the ball until they weren’t taking an attempt. Moreover, he knew that their only serious chance to win the game was to take it to the penalties where he was quite sure of his abilities.
And then suddenly there was a chance to take the lead as a Korean defender made a mistake and passed the ball straight to Pandey, India’s number seven. Pandey jumped on the opportunity, took the ball and rushed past a baffled defender, entered the penalty area and released a vicious strike; the keeper had no chance and the scoreline would have turned in their favor only if it would have hit the mark. The ball hit the cross bar and came straight back to a player in white who cleared it with ease.
Jeet felt his heart beat skip a beat. The disappointment of the crowd on the missed opportunity could be well heard.
The game went ahead; the Koreans took control of the game and pushed hard towards Jeet’s goal. He kept shouting instructions at his defenders. They took shots and the Indian defenders put their bodies on the line, blocking the shots. The number of Korean corners was tolling up, and if there was a situation where Jeet felt vulnerable then it was at corners.
Their corner specialist, Son Heung put a curling ball into the area, Jeet saw the ball was in his region, he took a couple of long strides, jumped high into the air and punched the ball but unfortunately the ball landed at the feet of lone Korean player, lurking outside the penalty area. He took aim and shoot with his all might. It was a low strike, surely it would have gone into the left bottom corner if not for Jeet, who dived to his left and got a touch to it to put the ball out.
Half time was approaching and Jeet was praying for the clock to tick fast for he had no idea as for how long he could keep the scores level. He had already made six saves, even one from point blank range when an Korean winger had put a across into the penalty area, everybody had lunged onto the ball, Indians trying to clear and the Korean trying to find the back of the net; the ball found a white jersey, the striker timed it well. Jeet stood on the goal line and felt his body move itself, his reflexes as its best and as the Korean connected the header he soared through the air, fully stretched, and miraculously picked the ball from the top corner. The people in the stands taking a sigh of relief and there was a loud cheering after that, people cheering his name.
The referee whistled for the half time and the spectators applauded as their team had showed once again that they can do it. Jeet took off his gloves, walked slowly to the touchline. He could see his girlfriend sitting in the stands, just above the dugout. He winked at her, and she smiled. He was feeling good about the evening, so good so far.
The second half progressed with Indians having the ball, a rare Indian attack moving forward trying to break into the Korean defense that was untested so far. It didn’t take much time for Korea to win the ball back and the first half’s story continued. They kept searching for the first goal and Jeet kept them denying.
There were just ten minutes remaining on the clock and panic was seeping into the Korean team, they were putting all their speed, strength into it and so they had a chance when Jamie, their playmaker, made a lob pass into the box, the Indian defenders had no idea what had happened until Kim-Wuk lost his marker gracefully, took the control of the ball and hit it, past the helpless Indian skipper into the right bottom corner.
Jeet didn’t even have a chance to even move. He kept standing at his spot and saw the ball roll into the goal and the Korean players stared to celebrate their goal, most probably the winning goal. The crowd was silenced in that single moment, it was so abrupt that Jeet thought he had gone deaf.
Then he saw a Korean player cursing, moving his hands in frustration and then he saw it. The flag was up for offside, Kim-Wuk had taken a step too early so the goal was cancelled and once again the stadium seemed to be rejuvenated with energy.
The game is still on, Jeet whispered to himself.
The fourth official signaled the injury time to be of two minutes. Jeet called back almost the whole team back, only Pandey was at the half line. The Koreans tried to break into the Indian line of defense but they were pushed back every time.
And the referee blew the whistle for full time and the game went into the extra time; two halves of fifteen minutes each. It had been a tough fought game so far and the players of both sides seemed a bit tired. So both the coaches made changes and brought in some fresh legs: Australia made two changes, bringing in a mid fielder for a forward, altering their formation while the Indians made their remaining two changes in a single go.
The extra time was no different, the Indians defended while the Koreans attacked and the result was no different either: stalemate.
Though in the second half of extra time Jeet could see change in the opposition’s approach. He saw both the wingers converging in from flanks whenever their mid fielders had a chance to move up with the ball unlike earlier where they tried to pass straight to the wingers who were supposed to put the cross in. He saw more one Korean player coming up for the support. Jeet shouted to his team mates to cover the coming player but the player with the ball had other ideas; he passed the ball to the winger who tried to dribble the ball a bit too long just outside the box and the Indian right back, Syed Khan made a reckless tackle and the Korean player fell, clutching at his shin bone, he bit on his jersey, pain clearly visible on his place. The referee gave a foul and showed a red card straight away to Khan. Indians tried to reason with referee but it was of no avail, Khan had to go and India was reduced down to ten men with Son Heung standing up to the ball to take the free kick.
It was a five men wall and Jeet took his position after making sure that was wall was at right position. The referee whistled for Heung to take the kick. He tried to chip the ball over the wall which Jeet anticipated and lunged at the ball like a cheetah. He got a hand to it but the ball was still in play. A Korean player came in for a rebound but Jeet threw himself in the line of shot and saved it again, this time he clutched onto the ball. He got up onto his feet, ran to the line and threw the ball to Pandey with his all might. Pandey broke into a run as soon as he had the ball in his feet. It was a quick counter attack.
Pandey could see only two Korean defenders up ahead and he knew it was his chance to prove himself. He did a couple of step over in front of one defender before beating him on pace and had covered about ten more yards as another defender came in with a sliding tackle. He jumped over his feet with the ball. Now he had only keeper to beat, he stepped into the box and saw keeper coming up charging. He didn’t think twice before releasing the ball. He hit hard and kept it low. The ball went like a bullet and was buried into the back of the net and the sound after that was literally defeating. The spectators went mad and Pandey ran to the touchline just to be embraced by his teammates. He removed his shirt, swung it twice before throwing it into the stands. All the players and even the team staff converged in on him, burying him deep under a pile of men, absorbing every shred of happiness the moment had to offer.
Jeet stood at his goal only, facing the stands, his fists raised up in the air like a king who had conquered the world. Well, it was no feat less difficult than that. They had done the impossible. They made it to the World Cup surely.
He urged the spectators to cheer even harder for their team as if they weren’t already shouting on top of their lungs. If someone had asked him to explain the scene before him, he couldn’t have. The reaction of the crowd was beyond explanation, their joy was beyond measurement and they deserved it. They had followed him and his team everywhere, Australia, China, Korea. They had come everywhere to support.
It took almost two minutes for the stadium to settle. Pandey was shown a yellow card for removing his shirt and the referee resumed the game with barely a minute left. The Korean started the game, moving up, with their every player attacking but the time was up and referee ended the game with the final whistle.
The roar that came from the crowd was the best sound Jeet had ever heard.
He embraced the Korean players, telling them how well they had played, that were the better side just it wasn’t their day and he meant every word. As he proceeded towards the touchline, the crowd applauded for him, and his team and one word could subsided all other sounds.
INDIA! INDIA! INDIA!