AIFF Media Team
CHIANG MAI, THAILAND: Some heads dropped, some knees sank to the ground, and some faces became numb in the Indian bunch inside the centre circle when Bashar Reshan slotted in the winning penalty for Iraq on Thursday evening. However, deep inside, each one of the Blue Tigers' souls knew what a valiant effort they had put in against one of Asia's top opponents.
Ultimately, it wasn't to be. What a historic result it could've been had some little things gone the way of those in blue. At that moment, it hurt. But at the end of the day, looking at the bigger picture, the heart fills with pride.
"Obviously, it's a hard result to digest," said Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who, even in that difficult moment, was the first to congratulate Iraq goalkeeper Jalal Hasan. "I think we could've won the game. Unfortunately, the second penalty which was awarded was questionable.
“But again, we did much, much better than what I think people would have thought. And we just need to believe in ourselves. We have to be a bit more patient and positive, which we were," he added.
Captaining India in the absence of Sunil Chhetri, it was an evening of near misses for Gurpreet. He dived the right way for both Iraq penalties in normal time but was unable to keep them out. There was no luck in the penalty shoot-out either. After winning two consecutive shoot-outs in the SAFF Championship semi-final and final against Lebanon and Kuwait, it was the third time unlucky for India's record clean sheet-keeper.
Opening up on areas to improve as a team, Gurpreet said, “We need to be humble and also make sure that we don't give away chances the way we did. Unfortunately, Iraq got their chances to come back and win the game.
“We just need to make sure if we want to be one of those big teams, we don't give away opportunities even if it looks like it's something out of our control. We need to make sure that we don't give any chances whatsoever to other teams if we want to be in those high numbers in Asia or in the world," said the 31-year-old.
The opportunity to right the wrongs is just two days away as India will meet familiar faces Lebanon in the third-place play-off on Sunday, September 10.
"We need to build on this performance because we have another game coming up. We need to make sure that we rest well, eat well, and get ready for that," Gurpreet said.
Having been part of the national team setup since 2011, there are not many better judges of India's development over the years than the custodian. The Blue Tigers have come a long way, and there's still a long way to go.
“Most of the boys in this bunch have played together for a long time. They are maturing at the right age, peaking at the right time. I've said this before, and I'm saying it again that we are much better than how people think we are."
Naorem Mahesh Singh's confident finish after a sumptuous brilliant build-up and the fact that the Arabian Gulf Cup champions could not break the Indian defence in open play is a testament to that.
"The sky's the limit for us. We just need to believe in ourselves as a team. We are working day in and day out to make sure that we, as a team, keep on pushing our limits, break the barriers and move forward in Asia because that's where we want to be," Gurpreet concluded.