‘Talismanic’ Captain Sunil Chhetri feels the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 will help in understanding “where we lie as players and areas we need to improve.”
As the Senior National Team prepares in Mumbai for India’s forthcoming AFC Asian Cup Qualifier against Myanmar slated for November 14, Chhetri, the highest Indian goal scorer in international football with 55 goals spoke at length about future megastars of Indian football, the last two years with Indian football, the road forward and even his “regrets.”
You have played a major role in qualification to two AFC Asian Cups for India. Where do you rate it in your illustrious career?
It will be among the highest achievements. The memories of Doha 2011 will stay with me forever. It’s the top-most tournament in Asia and qualification was not just on my priority list but on that of the entire squad. But I do have regrets too.
(Takes a deep breath) The last time when we couldn’t qualify for the 2015 edition, held in Australia. I was really very sad. The regret of not qualifying still lingers and if anybody is to be blamed, it had to be us — the players. It is all right to find excuses elsewhere but as a professional group of footballers one should always endeavor to take our games to the next level overcoming all odds. I think that has made the difference this time around. That as a group we believed, that we wanted to keep improving and that we are enjoying each other’s success.
What will the 2019 edition of the AFC Asian Cup provide for Indian football?
Top level of Asian football is today probably just a notch below the global elite. The top 2-3 teams in Asia like Iran, South Korea and Japan are in fact on par. Playing at such levels will therefore, help us gauge where we lie as a group as well as, as individual players vis a vis the top echelons of world football That’s of paramount importance as Indian football moves forward. The movement forward needs to be a continuous process and the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 should be a first stepping stone to that process as we rub shoulders with the best in Asia.
There has been the arrival of a new breed of players in the National Team like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Sandesh Jhingan, Udanta Singh amongst others. Are they the next megastars of Indian football?
I really hope so. I will always put my money on them. In fact, I will be very disappointed if the trio don’t dominate Indian football for the next decade. I also hope they get tough competition, with the U-17 and the U-16 squads pushing them further. Those batches are showing a lot of promise and doing well for us. The more the youth push their seniors, the better it for the entire squad.
The present team is a new set playing together for two years now. What do they need to better themselves as players?
Maybe the Coach and the respective players can answer it better as to how they can improve as players.
But yeah, the players need to improve and that has always been my mentality. There is a lot of potential which stays unachieved and if it isn’t attained, it’s Indian Football’s loss.
For an outside point of view, I hope the players utilize their opportunities to cement their place in the squad. At the same time there always needs to be a healthy competition from the bench to take the places in the starting XI. The process will only help Indian Football to get further stability.
Which has been your most satisfying moment in the last two years with the National Team?
It may sound weird but the triumph in the SAFF Cup was very significant. We were severely hit by injuries and missed a lot of seasoned pros. Winning with newcomers was indeed satisfying. Moreover, it was all about the rivalry with Afghanistan and had they won it, they would have taken the title forever.
In addition, the victory against Kyrgyz Republic in Bengaluru was special too. They are a very good side and we had to dig deep. I have since watched the match many times and feel proud every time about the manner it was achieved.