India must turn 'Sorrow of Sharjah' at Asian Cup into fuel for fire
Japan's J League started in 1993. At the same time, the national team was doing well in qualification for the 1994 World Cup and what would be a first appearance on the global stage. Going into the final game against Iraq in Qatar, the Samurai Blue just had to win to book their ticket. The goal was duly scored, and at halftime the team's Dutch coach, Hans Ooft, wrote "45 minutes to the World Cup" on the whiteboard in the dressing room. Iraq equalised soon after the break, but Japan restored their lead and were in front with just seconds to go.
Then it happened. Jaffar Osman Salman rose in the area and his header looped ever so slowly, ever so painfully, over the head of the goalkeeper. Suddenly it was 2-2, Japanese players were sinking to their knees and South Korea, who had already won their game and were lying down on the turf thinking it was all over, were celebrating instead.
Years later, Ooft theorised that the heartbreak of 1993 had been an important turning point in the history of Japanese football. To have something so valuable in your hands, only to have it snatched away in the cruelest way possible, had two effects.
First, it provided even more motivation to improve. It spurred on Japan to qualify for the 1998 World Cup without any drama at all. That is what happened, and the team have been present ever since, reaching the knockout stage no less than three times.
Second, the so-called "Agony of Doha" became a crucial part of the Japanese football story. Every story needs some heartbreak, some loss, some devastating defeat, something to bounce back from. Fans of every national and club team need to have that communal conversation when they whisper wistfully about what might have been. It became -- and remains -- an important part of the Japanese football narrative.
Now, some 25 years later, India have heartbreak of their own, something for their football community to share and bond over.
Qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup was a fine achievement, but that was nothing to thrashing Thailand in the opening game. Thailand have been the dominant team in Southeast Asia, a stronger region than South Asia, for much of this decade. They expected to win comfortably against India with three of their players in the J League, but they lost 4-1. India then went on to face the host United Arab Emirates, the third-placed team from 2015, a team that wasn't that far from qualifying for last summer's World Cup and a team a couple of levels above India in Asian terms. The U.A.E., led by former Serie A and Asian Cup-winning coach Alberto Zaccheroni, won 2-0, but India impressed once again and had they been more clinical and the crossbar a little thinner then a deserved point would have come their way.
It left the Blue Tigers needing a point against Bahrain in the final game. When you only need a draw, it can make for a difficult situation. Do you attack, defend or do a bit of both? India defended and did so too deeply. It very nearly worked, but a careless tackle from captain Pronay Halder in the dying seconds prompted the referee to point to the spot.
A spot kick in the final seconds: there is nothing so dramatic. It gives you time to prepare for the worst while offering that cruel sliver of hope that it will be OK. But Jamal Rashed kept his nerve to score for Bahrain. Instead of a 0-0 tie, second place in the group and a ticket to the second round, it was a 1-0 loss, fourth place and a ticket home. Players fell to the floor and fans couldn't believe it. The team came so close, as close as it is possible to come, but it was not enough.
There was obvious dismay among those fans in the stadium and those watching back home. You saw four of the five stages of grief pouring out on social media: denial, anger, depression and then acceptance. Only bargaining was absent. What was the point? Referees don't change their minds.
Within 30 minutes of the final whistle, coach Stephen Constantine, visibly emotional, had resigned. It truly felt like this was the end of an era. Or perhaps more accurately, it was the end of a chapter in the growing book of Indian football history.
But it is also a necessary chapter. Japan have shown that heartbreak and setbacks can be vital stops along the journey of football development, sometimes even more important than success.
Getting to the second round would have been great, but losing that amazing prize in the final seconds because of a penalty was dramatic and heartbreaking. It will never be forgotten, and that is why it is so valuable.
Japan have the "Agony of Doha." Now India have "The Sorrow of Sharjah."