Sunil Chhetri. Forever Young; a perfect example of may your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift. In Indian football, the 39-year-old sets a record every time he steps onto the pitch. It will be no different when he leads India into Round 2 of the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027 Joint Qualification campaign.
The Blue Tigers’ upcoming pre-FIFA World Cup journey will be Chhetri’s fourth entry and 20th match in the quadrennial tournament, an Indian record. He has nine goals to his credit in the pre-FIFA World Cup, again the best by an Indian footballer to date.
But it hasn’t stopped Chhetri from trying harder to chase his dreams. Currently, he is with the National Team, going through rigorous training sessions under Igor Stimac in Dubai. Yet, he took time out of his busy schedule to speak and provide a snapshot of what he feels about India’s chances in the opening away tie against Kuwait (November 16), his young and talented teammates and his own precious offerings to his much-treasured Indian football that he served for 17 years now.
Historically, India’s pre-World Cup campaigns have never gone beyond a certain stage. Can we expect a better performance this time from the present side?
I think we are at the right stage. This team probably are a strong side. Also, I must admit that we are in a strong group. Some really good sides are clubbed with us. But I think we are prepared, barring a few injuries here and there. It’s a team that has played together for some time. And a lot of youngsters are there. Yes, we look good.
What has really transformed this team? Are we prepared enough to go to the next round?
I think it is just the morale of the team, or what has happened in the last six, eight months. A lot of boys have taken their places in the team. And that is why we are probably more prepared. Also, the World Cup qualifiers are happening at a time when a lot of us have a decent amount of game time under our belts. all these things do matter. Over and above, we played Kuwait twice a few months back, so we have better knowledge of them, though it works on both sides. We have played Qatar at least thrice in the last three years, which again helps. And we always know Afghanistan. We have played them enough.
So I think whenever we play these teams, we might play good or bad, but we will not be surprised by what we are playing against. Barring the away tie in Kuwait, we are aware of the atmosphere for the away matches against Afghanistan and Qatar.
So that is why I said we are more prepared. We have to turn up on the pitch and perform well. Our team have always relied on hard work, team spirit, and being together. A lot of other teams have individual flair and other things. Probably, we are not that team. And I’ve got no qualms in accepting that.
At home, we have done decently well. In away games, we haven’t. If we have to go to the next round and be among the 18 best teams in Asia, we have to rectify our method. Here, every point in every game does matter, because the top two teams of every group qualify. So, we really have to work hard while starting against Kuwait in the away match. It’s a difficult one. But, as I said, barring a few injuries, I think we are well prepared.
At the same time, these 18 teams won’t have to play the qualifiers for the next Asian Cup. So, we can qualify automatically and reach the next round of the World Cup qualifiers, too.
Is it a realistic target?
SC: When you say realistic, whenever we have done well, in the last four years, we have done it as a team. We all had a good game. We are always a team more than individuals. So, that’s why every one of us has to be switched on. Take as much information as possible and be as prepared as possible. When we play on the 16th against Kuwait, it will be a little different from the one we played last time at home. Now the local fans are probably going to be hostile against us. Kuwait will be different because all teams are different when they play at home.
But they also will be under pressure because they, like us, will try to be in the first two teams in the group. So it’s not going to be easy. We must commit minimal mistakes because, in these big games, small mistakes can cost you a lot.
A few of our key players are nursing injuries…
I think I want to restrain myself from talking about the injuries because I think a lot of importance has been given to the injuries of some of the team members. I love them. They know it and I’ll miss them. But it’s done. It’s gone. I’ve made peace with it that they’re not going to be here. Otherwise, It will take a lot of focus away from the boys who are going to replace them. We always say that we are a team rather than a bunch of individuals. Whoever is here will have to play and make sure that we give a good account of ourselves.
Do we have enough firepower to breach the rival goal?
If you see the stats of (Lallianzuala) Chhangte, Mahesh (Naorem Singh) and Sahal (Abdul Samad)…. I’m taking these names because they’ve done really well in goal assists. We don’t play with two strikers under Igor’s (Stimac) system. But these three boys have done really well in creating chances, assisting and scoring a few important goals. So, it is more of me being the lone man ahead and these three coming and helping as many as possible and also going back and defending well. We also have Brandon (Fernandes) with a lot of experience. I think the three boys in the last 8-10 games have done really well. Playing with two strikers is a little bit different, to be honest, a tad different from playing a lone striker. But I’ve done it at the club level. And I understand it fairly well.
Chhangte is consistent, honest, and full of hard work. He’s our benchmark here in the national team. He, along with players like Sandesh (Jhingan), are the torchbearers of consistency and genuine hard work. These three are our pillars. And they encourage and motivate us a lot in the way they operate. Chhangte is not the one who speaks a lot. He is very quiet. But the way he operates, I think he’s the most loved guy in the team, without people openly expressing it. I think we all respect his hard work. And the way he has consistently worked hard and done the right things, eating the right stuff, and stepping in at the right time. And being a good professional is why he’s getting all these dividends.
Mahesh is gifted. Of course, he works hard, but he sees the game in a different manner. He is one of those players who are gifted in terms of touch, passing and understanding of the game. I don’t want to add pressure on anyone. It’s just been five or six months he is in the national team. But whatever little that I’ve seen of him, he’s humble. He wants to work hard. He has got good examples to follow in the team. All the senior boys like him and help him. He has a proper footballing brain, he understands the game and he knows how to pass. I hope they get strong challenges from other boys to grab the place. But I also hope they keep the place because they’re doing really well.
I want to include Sahal too. I think a lot of people probably do not understand how much he has changed in the last eight months from a guy who was struggling for not having a great domestic season and having a lot of trouble here and there. From then to now, when you watch him play for Mohun Bagan in the ISL, he stands out as the best player including all foreigners and all others. Even during training, he looks very confident and a different person. I hope he keeps his head on his shoulders and keeps performing.
As the most senior player, what is your advice to your teammates?
Well, I say try to stay calm. Understand the importance of the game. Keep the negative emotions under check and just do the basic right and work hard. Now, when I say it, it sounds so simple. But we have to do it.
When we are together, one of us might need a little bit more help that day. All of us should go and give it to him. We should make sure that none of us are singled out. Whether it’s in terms of technical and tactical help on the pitch, or a tackle, or a verbal spat, or whatever small things, it should be all of us together. So, we’ll try to stick together. This (Kuwait match) is a big game, a massive game.
This is your fourth pre-World Cup campaign. It was nearly 15 years ago when you played this tournament. Do you ever feel lonely?
Well, the age difference is evident, not only when I come for the national team, but also at the club. I understand that. But, I keep that aside. I don’t judge myself or anyone else by their age. I don’t judge any player when it comes to football by his age, whether it’s younger or older. Important is what you are doing for the team, how good are you for the team, how much can you sacrifice? That’s all.
As far as my job is concerned, I try to keep it simple. I go and I give whatever I have. More so now because I’m 39 and I still do the same thing that a youngster does. Even after being a father and my wife’s sacrifice for so many years, I still leave them to come over here. So the least that I can do when I’m here is to give whatever I have. My message to the boys is simple. Do exactly what you’re good at to the best of your abilities. All of us are good at something or the other. Make sure you do it to the best of your capability and keep your head calm. And after that, whatever the result comes, be it so be it but there shouldn’t be any regrets. The fewer regrets, the better for us.