With January’s 2019 AFC Asian Cup set to see India return to the Continent’s biggest stage for the first time in eight years, this wasn’t captain Sunil Chhetri simply hoping for safe passage to the United Arab Emirates in time for the tournament. It’s his vision for where his nation’s footballing aspirations should be pointed.
As one of two only remaining members of the side that reached the 2011 edition, which ended a hiatus that exceeded a quarter of a century, bombastic platitudes would be an easy card to play. But talking up potential upsets and derailing the continental giants are far from the 34-year-old’s priorities. The big picture is what dominates his outlook.
“I was really dejected when we missed out on the last edition,” he had then admitted to FIFA.com.
“I think it’s very, very important for a country like us to keep qualifying for this big tournament, because that tells you where you are and if you’re doing well.”
“It also gives you a chance to rub shoulders with the biggest teams in Asia. If you do well, other teams take notice of you.”
Back in the spotlight
With a population of 1.3 billion, India’s potential is cited all too often, but despite spending the last eight months inside the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking top 100, testing themselves against the best Asia has to offer is a rare moment to savour for India.
A pair of meetings with Iran on Team Melli’s path to reaching the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia account for their only encounters with any of Asia’s top six sides since their last trip to the Asian Cup. “It’s very, very important for us to keep playing against the big giants – the UAE, the Australian, the South Koreans.”
“It’s one thing to do well against your neighbours, and without demeaning any one of them, it’s a different thing when you go out and play the giants of Asia.”
Hosts UAE, alongside Thailand and Bahrain, are the hurdles that await come January, and Chhetri accepts that presents some stern challenges. “Without putting ourselves down, when you’re India and you qualify for the Asian Cup any team that you face are going to be difficult. In UAE and Thailand we have two teams who are very, very technically gifted. I think even Bahrain are going to be very physical.”
“I’m just looking at it as one game at a time. I don’t think we will be thinking about the mathematics of the group from the moment go.”
After 13 years with the national team, Chhetri has been the leading light for some time, currently sitting on a record 65 goals and 103 caps – clinching his century earlier this year. “Not even in my wildest fantasies would I ever have thought I’d play for my country 100 times.”
“This is something I’m really fortunate and privileged to have done and I don’t take it for granted because it’s something which probably every kid dreams of but I’m the chosen one, so I’m living a dream.”
While Chhetri isn’t planning to wake up just yet, he has high hopes for those waiting in the wings. The U-16s missed out on qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup by a solitary goal against South Korea but “are proper quality” in Chhetri’s eyes, while it “gives me immense pleasure” that Indian coach Bibiano Fernandes is at the helm, having seen native talent struggle to flourish.
India’s successful hosting of the U-17 World Cup last year also has the potential to create ripples into the future. “When kids from the community, the state and the country do well, kids look up to that. It also creates a lovely pressure, a sweet pressure for everyone to work really, really hard.”
“Making sure the league does well, that all the youth development programmes do well. I think just all-round pressure is needed in our country because for sure we have the talent.”