“Welcome to Nepal. This is your captain speaking – O I am sorry – this is your vice-captain speaking,” the entire team bus burst out in laughter as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu took over the microphone, all in an effort to bring in some humour.

“Don’t forget to wash your hands. Stay safe, train hard, rest well and let’s win this,” he summed it up perfectly. The clapping was spontaneous.

Other than Sunil Chhetri, Pritam Kotal and Gurpreet himself, none of the boys have been to Nepal ever donning the Senior team colours. The trio was there in 2015 when India qualified from the play-offs to the Russia 2018 World Cup Qualifiers. For Sunil, nevertheless, this is his

fourth visit to Nepal.

“This is an excellent opportunity for us to improve as a team. Given the current circumstances, it wasn’t easy to get a Friendly game. The Nepal Federation and Government invited us to play, and we thank them for the opportunity and the gesture,” Sunil stated. “Nepal is a very

tough side, especially when they play against us, and we are aware of the extreme challenge the two matches present us.”

It’s been raining, and torrentially so for the last 7 days. Even as dark clouds greeted the Blue Tigers on arrival, the weather forecast and experience of the locals predict that the clouds are to get darker in the next seven days.

Head Coach Igor Stimac smiles. “I just hope that it doesn’t rain heavily,” he said. Coincidentally, the preparatory camp in Kolkata had also witnessed heavy downpours, but not extreme enough to become a concern.

Early in the morning, the changing colours of the sky prompted the players to recheck the weather forecast. But, the blue sky and the bright sunshine are more like guests during the pandemic, not willing to stay long for much.

In the team bus, Pritam Kotal sat by the window as his eyes wandered all around, perhaps trying to spot some lost memories. “It was here that I played my second International match. So, a visit to Nepal will always be special for me,” he smiled. “I missed the preparatory camp in Kolkata but was with my club for the AFC Cup, and the best part is that we got some match practice,” he quipped.

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