Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri on Sunday said that the country should play more international matches away from home and against much stronger opponents in the next six months if it is to do well in the AFC Asian Cup tournament.
Chhetri said his team needs the best of preparations to make it count in the January 5 to February 1 event in the United Arab Emirates next year after crashing out of the group stage in the 2011 edition — the last time India played in the prestigious event — by losing all their matches with big margins.
“What I’m looking forward is winning games outside the country which is very important. Our home record is fairly good but outside home we have really struggled. I just hope in the next six months we get more away games against much better opponents so that we can test ourselves. What we are facing (in Asian Cup) are the best in Asia,” Chhetri said.
The prolific striker’s remarks make sense as India has done badly against the continent’s top opponents away from home during the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign, which preceded the Asian Cup qualification rounds.
India had lost to Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and even to Guam in their away matches of the World Cup qualifiers. The Stephen Constantine-coached side won just two matches out of 10 World Cup qualifiers.
Chhetri, who turns 34 this August, does not agree with the view that India has got an easier group this time as compared to the 2011 edition where the country was clubbed with Asian powerhouses Australia and South Korea as well as Bahrain. This time, India has been grouped with UAE, Thailand and Bahrain.
“If you say it can be easier because we are doing well that can be a valid point. But we can’t say it is UAE, Thailand and Bahrain and so it is easier. Only because we are not facing Australia and South Korea people think it’s going to be easy. It is not,” he said on the sidelines of an initiative by KIA Motors India to select two school children as official match ball carriers for the upcoming World Cup in Russia. UAE is ahead of us and they are playing at home. Thailand is the most improved side in Asia in the last six years. We played against Thailand in six-seven years ago and it was a 2-2 draw. They are competing with the best in Asia. Australia and Japan are finding difficult to beat Thailand.”
Nonetheless, the star striker said his team “should look to take maximum points in their first match” if they they want to proceed further in the tournament. India play Thailand in their opening match on January 5 in Dubai.
Chhetri also said that the impressive run in the Asian Cup qualifying campaign, during which India had a 13-match unbeaten run, will count for nothing in the main round. The impressive run had contributed to India returning to top 100 in FIFA rankings after a long time.
“I am happy with the kind of performance we have put into. But I don’t give too much importance to FIFA rankings. We have broken inside top 100 but the way rankings work is very tricky. What we have to deal with is a much bigger stage and it will not help by what we have done before,” he said.
Chhetri will, no doubt, be playing in his last Asian Cup next year and he will be the only Indian to have played in two editions of the continental showpiece. He scored two goals out of three by his team in the 2011 edition in Doha.
He has donned India jerseys 97 times so far and his 100th match is expected to come up during the four-team Intercontinental Cup to be held from June 1 in Mumbai, which will also involve South Africa, New Zealand and Chinese Taipei.
“It has been an unbelievable ride. I started out from Delhi and the only reason why I wanted to play India U-17 was to get a certificate to get into St. Stephen’s. Whatever I have achieved now is something I have never dreamt of. I am living a dream and I am really happy about it. I could not have asked for anything more.”
Chhetri’s club Bengaluru FC nearly won Indian Super League in their debut season, only to lose to Chennaiyin 2-3 FC in the summit clash. He said that the final loss still hurts him and his club-mates.
“I don’t want to be cry baby now and we knew the ISL format. But to win the league the way we did with 40 points, I don’t want to use the words smashing but we dominated everyone. And to lose the final because of two corners, which was our mistake, still hurts.
“After we won the Super Cup (in Bhubaneswar) we were happy but that happiness went out in half an hour and we started remembering how we missed to mark (our opponents) in that two corners in the ISL final. Those two corners still haunt all of us.”
Bengaluru FC, established in 2013, are currently in a difficult position to qualify for the knock-out round of AFC Cup after losing 0-2 to New Radiants of Maldives in Male in a group match.
“In that match, we did not turn up at all. I think that was the worst match Bengaluru played in the five years (of existence). There were three bad games the whole season. One was against Delhi Dynamos which we totally dominated but still lost. The second is ISL final match against Chennaiyin and third AFC Cup match in Male,” he said.