New Delhi: The Indian national football team just a month ago qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, winning all four of their matches. It was not just a normal win for the ‘Men in Blue,’ but a win which saw them score eight goals and concede just one, to qualify for only the fourth time in the topmost Asian tournament and captain and talisman Sunil Chhetri feels that performance in the Championships will have a big say in identifying where India lies as a footballing nation.
“Playing at such a top level tournament will help us gauge where we lie as a group as well as, as individual players vis a vis the top echelons of world football That’s of paramount importance as Indian Football moves forward. The movement forward needs to be a continuous process and the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 should be a first stepping stone to that process as we rub shoulders with the best in Asia,” said Chhetri in an interaction with the AIFF, before India’s next qualifying match against Myanmar on November 14.
The historic achievement which came after a five-year wait was celebrated by the entire country and the Indian captain too rates it highly. “It will be among the highest achievements. The memories of Doha 2011 will stay with me forever. It’s the top-most tournament in Asia and qualification was not just on my priority list, but on that of the entire squad,” said Chhetri drawing memories of the 2011 AFC Asia Cup, where India was knocked out from the very first round after losing all three of their matches, shipping 13 goals against scoring only three.
The present Indian team however has been on a golden run of going unbeaten for 12 matches, which saw them win 11 and draw just one against St. Kitts and Nevis and Chhetri who with 55 goals, is India’s highest goal scorer, credits coach Constantine and the hard work of the players for all the success. But it is not the end, India have to work hard and achieve more if they are to be on par with the like of Iran, Japan and Korea.
A lot of credit needs to be given to coach Stephen Constantine who in his second stint with the Indian team has already given debuts to more than 32 players. Echoing that Chhetri rightly pointed out Sandesh Jhingan, Udanata Singh and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu are the next breed of Indian footballers who will rule Indian football. “I will always put my money on them. In fact, I will be very disappointed if the trio don’t dominate Indian football for the next decade,” he added.
Competition among teammates is an important aspect of player developement and Chhetri observed that more players have to come up to push these players if their full potential is to be unleashed. Impressed with the performance of the U-17 players in the just concluded FIFA U-17 World Cup he said, “I also hope they get tough competition, with the U-17 and the U-16 squads pushing them further. Those batches are showing a lot of promise and doing well for us. The more the youth push their seniors, the better it for the entire squad.”
“There always needs to be a healthy competition from the bench to take the places in the starting XI. The process will only help Indian Football to get further stability,” he added.
The 2011 and 2015 SAFF Championships however remains the diminutive midfielder’s most cherished moment as an Indian player. “It may sound weird but the triumph in the SAFF Cup was very significant. We were severely hit by injuries and missed a lot of seasoned pros. Winning with newcomers was indeed satisfying. Moreover, it was all about the rivalry with Afghanistan and had they won it, they would have taken the title forever,” said the smiling Bengaluru FC captain.
This is however not the end of the road and India must strive hard if it is to attain greatness in world football for still “There is a lot of potential which stays unachieved and if it isn’t attained, it’s Indian Football’s loss,” concluded a hopeful Chhetri.