In rooms on either side of his, Anirudh Thapa hears “banging” in the morning and evening. “Everyone’s working out,” he said. Tuning in mentally while isolating though is more difficult. “With cases increasing massively and some of our close ones passing away it isn’t easy to focus,” said the India midfielder in a virtual media conference on Tuesday. “The worry is that our family members or we might get infected.”
Thapa too works out, following the script created by Croatia’s Olympian weightlifter Luka Radman, who is India’s strength and conditioning coach and whom he refers to as “professor” through the interaction. And he reads, watches series and listens to music. The book he has just finished is ‘Becoming’–the story of Michelle Obama’s life– he said.
The other books he has read, in bio-secure bubbles for Chennaiyin FC during the Indian Super League (ISL) and then in the one created in Dubai for the national team, are biographies on Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar. It is his way of stopping negative thoughts. “It keeps me distracted from Covid,” he said.
Thapa and other India probables are in New Delhi awaiting results of their RT-PCR tests before leaving for Doha on Wednesday. The squad size will depend on the number of players testing negative for Covid-19. Qatar has waived the mandatory 10-day quarantine meaning head coach Igor Stimac can get a few training sessions in before the first game, against the home team on June 3. India play Bangladesh on June 7 and Afghanistan on June 15. Out of contention for an Asian final round berth in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, finishing third in the group that also has Oman will help India get to the third round of the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers.
Three competitive games of importance after over two months of inaction is far from ideal. “Injury concerns are never far away as it is difficult for your body to adjust,” said Thapa, 23. Players have followed Radman’s routine, sent via a players’ WhatsApp group, to stay fit at home, said Thapa even as they stayed ready to be called up anytime for a preparatory camp. But the one planned in Kolkata this month had to be cancelled because of surging Covid-19 cases in West Bengal.
With Stimac trying 11 new players in the March friendlies, Thapa didn’t want to read a lot into the 0-6 defeat to UAE –India’s biggest defeat since 2010–after the 1-1 draw against Oman. “No one was expecting this result but the coach wanted to see young players who had done well in ISL. He had to see who was capable of big games. Mandar bhai (Mandar Rao Desai) didn’t play and many others got only a few minutes. It was difficult to adjust with so many new players because it is one thing to see them as opponents and another for them to be teammates,” said the deep-lying midfielder who has two goals in 25 internationals and started the 2020-21 ISL with a first-minute goal.
“He (Stimac) had to see who is capable of playing in his system. There will be changes,” said Thapa.
What does worry Thapa is India not creating enough chances in their last four games, two of which were against Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the qualifiers–both ended 1-1. “That is one of our main concerns,” he said.
No vaccine yet
Thapa said he couldn’t book a slot to get his first shot of the Covid-19 vaccine. “Where I live there were limited vaccines available and everybody wanted to get a shot, which is good. I will get my shots once we are back from Qatar,” he said.