Sunil Chhetri laments lack of international friendlies for Indian team ahead of Asian Cup qualifiers
'It's very important to keep playing friendlies. It's a sad thing that we haven't played a single game after that win against Puerto Rico. This isn't very ideal,' Sunil Chhetri said.
There is one moment in Sunil Chhetri's career that perfectly embodies the 32-year-old. India are playing in the final of the SAFF Cup against Afghanistan.
The score's 1-1 and, with the title on the line, both teams are labouring to score a winner. In the 101st minute, a quick free kick by India elicits a moment of madness in the Afghan penalty box. Instead of clearing, the defender tamely heads the ball towards Sayed Mohammad Hashemi. The 6-foot, 4-inch defender is about to receive the ball when a flying Chhetri, all of 5' 7", leaps above him, beats him in physicality with his shoulder and before the rapidly advancing goalkeeper and a third defender can close him down, scores despite being completely off-balance. Keep aside the fact that he has scored when India needed him to the most. What is even more telling is that to do so, he got the better of a man almost a foot taller than him.
It is not the World Cup or even the AFC Asian Cup. But it's a matter of pride. As Chhetri points out later, "If we win it, people say 'It's just the SAFF Cup'. If we don't, we'll be asked, 'You couldn't even win the SAFF Cup?'" So, losing was not an option. Not that night.
On the football field, Chhetri aches for a fight. He wants to play on every given opportunity. Perhaps that is why, India not having played any matches since their surprise 4-1 victory over higher-ranked Puerto Rico has left him a tad disappointed.
According to a report in The Indian Express, the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) decision not to schedule any matches in the two windows available in October and November helped them exploit a loophole in FIFA's ranking system to climb up 26 places and thereby get a better draw for the final round of 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers.
But while Chhetri acknowledged the mathematics that led them to securing a good draw — India is in Group A with World No 125 Kyrgyzstan, 184th ranked Macau and World No 172 Myanmar — he said he would have preferred to have done it on the field.
"Yes, being in pot 2 is beneficial. It eliminates other higher ranked teams who were also in the same pot. But it's very important to keep playing friendlies. It's a sad thing that we haven't played a single game after that win against Puerto Rico. This isn't very ideal. Especially for us, if we want to improve, we have to keep playing friendlies and with better opponents. Against better opponents, even if you don't do as well as you expect, you always learn and improve. We would love to play more international friendlies or competitive games against higher ranked opponents.
"Mathematically, yes, we didn't play and we got into pot 2 (in the draw for the final qualifying round for Asian Cup). But you can't predict what would have happened if we had played matches. It's not ideal. You want to play on each opportunity you get as a player. If we had more match training, it definitely would have helped. But it's behind us now. It's not in our hands.We can't be cribbing about it," Chhetri told journalists on Thursday.
The 32-year-old striker is in Mumbai along with other national team probables for a training camp at the Andheri Sports Complex before the team plays Cambodia in a friendly in Phnom Penh on 22 March as preparation for their AFC Asian Cup qualifying group game against Myanmar on 28 March.
The India skipper added that despite the luck with the draw, his team were not taking their eyes off the road.
"The one mistake the team is not doing is to think this is not an easy pool. It's a relatively easier pool than what we have been getting in the last 10-15 years, but it's still not easy. I've been playing for 11 years, we always drew the Japans and the South Koreas and the Australias. It's not an easy pool until we do the job we are supposed to do on the field," he added.
On being asked if the team can pull off more upsets like the one against Puerto Rico, he said: "We have more chances to beat higher ranked teams if we play them. If someone had asked me before Puerto Rico game whether we can beat them, I would have said I'm not 100 percent sure. So until we play a game, we wouldn't know.
"We're 20th or 21st in Asia right now. Our target is to reach the top 12 in Asia. That's the realistic goal right now. To have any chance, you have to keep challenging for the 12th and 13th rank. For that, you have to keep playing big tournaments. We're ready to fight."
He also said that the national team needed more realistic goals rather than aiming to play at the World Cup.
"We have to qualify for the Asian Cup constantly. We sure want to beat Myanmar. We talk about playing in the World Cup but if we have to better ourselves, this is a big benchmark, this is the real one," the striker said before adding: "It's not very often we play big tournaments and we talk about Asia Cup and it is the biggest in Asia, so when you have a chance you want to grab it. We have been playing qualification for so long and now we are in the final stages of qualification and we don't want to give up."
As that goal against Afghanistan proved, giving up is not Chhetri's style.
AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022 will be held in India from 20 January to 6 February.
The lack of preparatory camps and the impact of a short domestic calendar are issues that need to be sorted out soon for the Indian national team to prosper.
Head coach Igor Stimac said the next three matches of the qualifying campaign will provide a chance to the Indian players to gauge "where they stand against their generation" of other Asian countries.