Chhetri: 'I try and lead by example than lecturing'

On the eve of his 100th international match, the Indian captain Sunil Chhetri hoped a day would come when top Asian teams playing the World Cup would be more than willing to play against India frequently.

Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri (right) leads his team for a practice session at the Andheri Sports Complex.   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

India captain Sunil Chhetri, whose goal-getting ability and confidence on the pitch is a benchmark for younger players trying to get into the Indian team, spoke about moulding younger teammates through leading by an example.

On the eve of his 100th international match, the prolific scorer hoped a day would come when top Asian teams playing the World Cup would be more than willing to play against India frequently.

Excerpts from a chat, ahead of India's Intercontinental Cup tie against Kenya at the Andheri Sports Complex:

India's FIFA ranking is below 100. Do you feel, in the current situation, that India can go lower than 97 now?

We have the desire to move up the (FIFA) ranks. We need to keep working hard. I don't take rankings seriously because of the way it works. Our agenda is to play well and try to win. To reach under 100 was difficult but to stay there is very, very difficult. Rankings help in certain aspects, like when a tournament draw is made. We have to make sure to give our best at every opportunity.

Do you still feel the jitters like how you felt the first time you played for India?

Jitters and anticipation is still the same. I do not like late (night) games. I have learnt to deal with it. I wonder why cannot we wake up at 6.30 and play at 10am. You are thinking and mind is so powerful, at that time. I have learnt to follow a plan, ready something to keep mind occupied. When you think too much before a game, especially at 8 o’clock, it becomes difficult. It does not matter who we are playing and which tournament. I am calm now the moment warm-up starts, because then you are not thinking about anything else then.

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Did you feel you will be playing 100 matches for India? Can you describe the journey?

I didn't think I could play 100 games for India. I did dream but didn't think of it. I'm completely honoured, 100 games is a big deal but I don't say with arrogance. I do hope to keep emotions in control (when it happens). I was speaking to my mother, it was emotional. It is really big for her and my family. The journey has been tremendous and I feel special, as the second Indian to hit 100 matches.

Can you explain the changes in you, happening with experience, compared to when you started?

I have become calmer. Once you grow older and play more, you tend to automatically start filtering stuff which isn't needed for you, which is not important. I do the things which work for me. I still remember my first match for India (2004 Asian Games in Islamabad) against Pakistan. Syed Rahim Nabi and I were the rookies, chilling out knowing that we may not be fielded. Sukhi-sir (Indian coach Sukhwinder Singh) announced at breakfast that both of us would play. Our minds were buzzing (with anticipation and excitement) from then on. I scored a goal and in all in euphoria of netting my first goal for India, I ran to the Pakistani fans and started to celebrate. There is one picture with the strange sight, I was the only one rejoicing in the image.

Your rapport with the current squad, as captain...

I feel good when I speak with Udanta (Singh) and sprint with him. I feel good when I try to get past Sandesh (Jhingan); I feel good when I try to score against Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, all of them are professionals. The desire in the squad makes it special. There’s an ardent desire to improve and it's really good to lead this bunch of players.

Also read: Chhetri, Kohli appeal fans to watch and support Indian football

As captain of a young side and with many new comers getting international debut, how do you motivate teammates?

I have understood that lectures don’t work and try to be a good example. If I go up to a young player and try to tell  him the importance of being on time, the importance of hitting the gym, maybe he will not take me seriously. Instead, I try to do it myself so that the boys can see and follow. It gives me immense joy that Jeje (Lalpekhlua) is trying to follow me. He started in front of my eyes just the other day, now he is nearing 50 international matches. He tries to follow what I eat, what I do. The effort to improve by teammates after watching me do things is so satisfying.

You put out a video where you also appealed to fans to come for India matches (at the Intercontinental Cup)...

The video wasn't for the special occasion. I didn't believe the impact and thank everyone who joined in. I can tell you how it happened. We played the game (India beat Chinese Taipei 5-0 in the Intercontinental Cup opener) and it felt great to celebrate with the fans (at MFA). I was speaking to Sandesh Jhingan about how clubs have done well (in attracting fans for matches). The topmost (club which comes to mind) is Kerala Blasters, where the players can't hear each other (due to vociferous support in the stands during ISL games at Kochi). You want to live the 90 minutes, this is what we want to feel. We have done it at Bengaluru FC. This (atmosphere in the stands) is something we didn't feel in Mumbai. I am sorry if people felt bad. It is just that when we come out in the India jersey, I expect more people to come and cheer for us.

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