Always want to see India playing at Asian Cup, says ‘fan’ Sunil Chhetri

Thrilled at the prospect of qualifying for the 2023 Asian Cup in front of the passionate fans at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata, which he described as the best in India, Indian national team captain Sunil Chhetri is gearing up to take on Cambodia in their first Group D match of 2023 AFC Asian Cup third-round qualifiers on Wednesday, followed by matches against Afghanistan and Hong Kong.

The Blue Tigers play on home soil for the first time in almost three years. Incidentally, the last time they played at home it was in Kolkata in October 2019. “It will be massive, otherwise why do teams enjoy having the home advantage? And what better place to have it than Kolkata. Wherever we have played, even in Gujarat (Intercontinental Cup) last time, we had tremendous support despite us not usually playing there,” Chhetri said on Monday.

“There are a few pockets which are very famous for fans giving us everything they have got in numbers – Kerala, Guwahati, Bengaluru but none probably better than the Salt Lake stadium, I think along with Kochi. We enjoy tremendous support here. The memories are still fresh from the last time we played here three years ago as far as fan support is concerned. We are really happy and I just hope everyone comes in numbers and we can enjoy the atmosphere,” added the talismanic striker.

India have featured in four Asian Cup finals, finishing runners-up in 1964. In the last edition in 2019, they were out in the group stage but had impressed in a dominating 4-1 win against Thailand in their opening match. Chhetri believes qualifying for the showpiece continental event should be non-negotiable.

“It is paramount. That is the bare minimum we should do, for two reasons – one, we get the opportunity to rub shoulders with the best in Asia, and two, because we can. We have shown enough in the past that this is something we should aim on a regular basis and achieve it. For a team like India, who genuinely and desperately want to improve, playing in Asian Cup is a bare minimum. I don’t want to put pressure on players but I am saying it in a genuine manner, as a fan, I will always want to see India playing at Asian Cup,” said the 37-year-old.

India’s record goal scorer with 80 goals to his tally, Chhetri is joint-third on the list of active international goal scorers, just behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

As captain, Chhetri feels proud with the likes of young guns Liston Colaco and Manvir Singh knocking on the doors to demand a permanent spot in the playing XI. “I feel very happy when there are players knocking on the doors to be playing in the first XI.

It doesn’t matter to me which position they are demanding the place for. As far as the captain in me is concerned, I feel elated when there are players who do well when they get their chance and cement their position. At the end of the day, we all want a national team that has healthy competition for places, a pre-identified first XI, first XIV. Even the coach wants it if you ask him,” Chhetri remarks ahead of their group opener.

The hunger to score and win matches for India has not died down a bit over the years, explains the veteran marksman. “As a player, I will keep working hard for my place in the same manner as when I was 19 when I first came into the team and was fighting for my place with the likes of Bhaichung (Bhutia) bhai. It is the same now. When you are playing for the national team, you have to fight for your place.

“It is the same for me, Gurpreet, Sandesh or a youngster like Suresh, or anyone. The one who is going to give the most to the team is going to start, it is very simple. Places are up for grabs for everyone and the players coming through doing well, gives an added advantage to the team because sifting through the whole competition, only the best will take the field,” Chhetri explained before signing off.