The Intercontinental Cup triumph was an achievement in itself but the Asian Cup next year would be a different ball game, Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri said on Tuesday.
“It (Intercontinental Cup) was a great preparatory tournament for us. We don’t play teams like Kenya and New Zealand everyday. It was a different challenge. No matter how much we improve, it might still be less,” Chhetri told reporters after receiving the Indian Player of Year at the Football Players Association of India Awards here.
“Let me correct you, with due respect to Kenya and New Zealand the teams that are competing against us in the Asian Cup — Thailand, Bahrain and UAE — they are at least two-three levels up. It’s a different level altogether.”
Chhetri said it’s not about getting carried away but to keep their heads down and work hard.
“Where we want to reach is very very far. We are just taking small steps. There is no point getting carried away. We should work hard keeping our heads down and try to keep improving ourselves.”
The talismanic India captain netted eight goals in the title-winning Intercontinental Cup campaign in Mumbai and also played his milestone 100th match in India colours.
He also became joint second highest international goal scorer among active players along with Argentine superstar Lionel Messi with his 64th strike.
Chhetri, however, said his best strike is yet to come and he’s hoping that it comes in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup from January 5-February 1 in the UAE.
“I can’t think of my favourite goal right now. Hopefully when I score in the Asian Cup that will be my favourite goal. But my favourite defender is Mahesh Gawli and Anwar Ali were two of my favourite defenders I played against or with. I’m really really happy that I scored that many goals for my country. I am more proud that I’ve played 100 games for my country. That is huge for me and my family,” he said.
India had a disastrous Asian Cup outing in the 2011 edition in Qatar, going down to Australia (0-4), Bahrain (2-5) and South Korea (1-4) by huge margins.
In the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, India failed to qualify. “We tried our best. We had the man of the tournament in Subrata Pal who was outstanding. But let me tell you we don’t play Australia, UAE and Japan everyday. It’s not easy to play against them,” Chhetri, who was part of the 2011 campaign, said.
“Just go there and try to improve. I think we are a better team now. I will make sure that we are a better team when it comes in December. How do we know how far are we, because South Korea, Iran, Australia Saudi Arabia are playing the World Cup. How do we know how far are we if we are not going to play against them? It’s small steps. Slowly steadily we will reach there. We cannot just go there and jump,” Chhetri, who scored 20 goals in the ISL and Super Cup, said.
Meanwhile ISL runners-up and Super Cup champions Bengaluru FC dominated the FPAI awards which was held in a low-key manner at the Calcutta Sports Journalists’ Club.
Bengaluru FC coach Albert Roca was adjudged the Best Coach, while Nicolas Fedor Flores (Miku) was chosen the Best Foreign Player, the award of which was received by Chhetri.
Jamshedpur FC’s Jerry Mawihmingthanga got the Best Young Player of the Year, while Neorca FC’s Subhas Singh took the Fans Player of the Year.
The awards ceremony also felicitated I-Leuage champions Minerva FC, former India captain Subrata Bhattacharya, goalkeeper Henry Menezes and I-League winning coach Sanjoy Sen