"Come here boys. I need to talk to you," Arthur Papas waved five minutes after the final whistle against Iraq.
Drenched, fatigued and obviously disappointed by then, the boys didn't want to move. After running all over for 90 minutes in over 40 degrees, lying on the soft lush green was pure bliss. But they had to.
"Listen! I am very proud to be your coach. You make me proud. The manner you fought against a top quality side for 90 minutes, I'm pleased. I told you I'm not concerned about the result. You should have had a result but you were unlucky. I am proud that I am your Coach," Papas complimented.
The clapping from the boys, was impulsive. It had to be. The boys got up, re-energised.
Iraq's coach Hakeem Shakir crossed over the centre-line and walked towards Papas. "I've seen many an Indian team in the past across all age-groups. But I admit this is the best Indian team I've ever played against. I mean it," he shook hands for one more time and walked off.
Papas stood still. That his confidence at just 32 is infectious, indications stay clear. In just 16 days of practice prior to coming to Muscat, he's instilled a sense of self belief in the team-- a self belief which has been foreign for India [ Images ]. "We should have got a result in the match," he reiterates.
You dig deep into his heart. In a sport whose roots in the history go deep, India are still chasing football in the modern age. And here is the man, entrusted to move the ball forward from knee-deep.
With the towers at the picturesque Royal Oman Police Stadium surrounded by the brown mountains, which from a distance seem like chocolate energy bars being switched off one by one, you dig further back.
A nation ranked 74th on the FIFA [ Images ] ladder, many a time in the last 20 minutes, took the ball to the corner flag to kill time. They were cornered. The final whistle brought them relief. Did ever India have such an authority over Iraq? The mind couldn't dig anymore.
"Australia [ Images ] couldn't score against Iraq. We have," Papas stayed spot on. "But this is just the beginning. One bad day, you can have a bad result. It can happen to any team. So we all need to patient -- the fans need to be patient, we need to be patient too," he comments.
UAE coach Baler Sadih had come over more to watch Iraq; instead he jotted India more. "Your team can change the formation so fast. From 4-3-2-1 it becomes 4-3-1-2 and within ten minutes, you are 4-3-3. This is so flexible. Such teams are very dangerous," he appreciated.
Again, you need to go back to Papas. His team meetings are dissective enough to make you understand what needs to be dome to get to the next level. Good Coaches always exhale positivity. Papas, possesses the quality -- his intensity never fades.
The boys were rewarded for their effort. At the dining table, Papas declares: "Today you can have your dessert. I allow you." The grin just broadened. Desserts have been a strict no-no since Papas took over. The hard taskmaster that he is, sometimes you ought to wonder about the toughness about the man. But this man has a heart too, that too, a soft one.
Half an hour past midnight with most other rooms having the DND flashed on their doors, Papas walks the corridor and walks into a room to oversee. Stopper Prathamesh Maulinkar was having his ice-bath then; Milan Singh waited in queue. He taps both gently on their shoulders, enquires about the others, smiles, and walks off towards his room.
"It's 12.40am. But he hasn't gone to his bed as yet. And here he is enquiring whether we are fine," Milan looks into your eye. "I'm proud of my coach. I'm proud to be playing under him," he became sentimental.
The next morning, the players who haven't played so far in the Championship, hit the gym early. At the breakfast table, Papas goes to each and talks. The boys listen.
You watch from a distance -- a 'Proud' coach with his 'Proud' boys. The next moment you overhear: "Today is a rest day. The bus will take you out. But you need to be in the hotel by 5pm."
Photograph: AIFF Media