It started with the Tri-Nation win in Manipur, then the Intercontinental Cup victory in Bhubaneshwar, and culminated with the SAFF Championship win in Bengaluru. It is safe to say that it has been a stellar run for the Indian football team till now.
But, with the King’s Cup, Merdeka Cup, and Asian Cup rapidly approaching, Blue Tigers captain Sunil Chhetri said “this is just the start”, and there is a long way to go before India can establish itself as a dominant force in Asian football.
Chhetri said the first target should be breaking into the top 10 in Asia. For Chhetri, being disciplined and maintaining fitness are good starting points to achieve that milestone.
“Technically and tactically, we are not there yet with the top teams in Asia, and we have no qualms accepting that. But to fight and be strong, we will not negotiate. That is very simple stuff, and everyone can achieve [that]...to have a certain level of fitness and be strong—to go and head; to go and smash; to go and fight,” Chhetri said.
Where can the team improve
India conceded just two goals in the nine matches it played in the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship combined. Before the 1-1 draw against Kuwait in the SAFF group stages, the Blue Tigers enjoyed eight successive clean sheets. The defensive compactness has earned the goalkeepers and the backline a lot of adulation. But Chhetri feels there is room for improvement.
“Wholeheartedly, [I want] all the areas to improve. But I think one concern we had was in the games we played; we had a lot of chances. Our conversion rate was poor in terms of other attributes of the game, like defence, attacking corners, defensive corners, and time management. The final pass and the finishing were probably the poorest parts of our game in totality.”
Chhetri also said that when the forward line takes chances and puts the team in the lead, that automatically boosts the morale of the defence, and the entire team starts playing in sync.
Playing stronger opposition good for India
All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Kalyan Chaubey said he does not want India to remain restricted to SAFF. He wants to arrange matches with the CAFA (Central Asian Football Association) nations and countries from the Middle East and the Gulf. It will help improve the Blue Tigers’ FIFA ranking so that they can take on stronger opposition.
Chhetri welcomed the idea and said countries like Kuwait and Lebanon would be beneficial because of the level of football they bring. Post-win, he said that the matches against the West Asian nations were the most challenging ones, and beating them to win the title made it all the more special.
However, the Indian captain also said that the system needs to evolve and that the senior and junior teams should have their respective priorities.
“I have been saying for a long time that now the SAFF tournament for us should be about sending out U-23s and U-21s. Respecting all SAFF countries is going to give more exposure to our underage teams. If the senior team gets 10–13 good teams, and the SAFF is one of them, then the U-23 and U-21 never get the opportunity.”
Picking and choosing - not Chhetri’s cup of tea
With two tournaments with the national team and club football, Chhetri has a lot on his plate before the Asian Cup next year.
At 38, game management is something most players would seriously consider. Apart from the national camp, Chhetri, who signed a contract extension with Bengaluru FC, also needs to dedicate his team to his club. In such a situation, tailoring his game time would seem reasonable. But Chhetri has admitted multiple times that he is the fittest player in the team and is available for selection in all the matches.
“I do not like to miss games,” said India’s record goal scorer when asked about picking and choosing games.
“People who are more knowledgeable than me—the head coach, the physios, and the doctors—if they think I need to rest, I might listen to them. I take care of myself a lot. If I am sitting out or missing a match because I am not good enough, I will take it.
“But I do not like to hear things like, ‘you should rest this one and that one’. But the decision is not mine [alone]. I am available for every game, be it carrom, TT (table tennis), or chess,” Chhetri said, laughing.
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