Sunil Chhetri and India look for launchpad in SAFF Championship as Asian Cup campaign looms

By, Bengaluru
Jun 30, 2023 09:54 PM IST

India will meet tougher opponents Australia, Syria, and Uzbekistan at the Asian Cup, which will be held next year in Qatar.

India will be meeting familiar opponent Lebanon in the SAFF Championship 2023 semifinal at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on Saturday, which will be the third encounter between the two sides in this month. The first encounter ended in a goalless stalemate, while the second, which was at the Intercontinental Cup final in Bhubaneswar, saw Blue Tigers clinch a comfortable 2-0 victory. The only difference this time, leaving out the massive change in weather conditions, is the absence of head coach Igor Stimac in the technical area, and tall and sturdy Sandesh Jhingan at the heart of defence.

Sunil Chhetri celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Pakistan(AFP)
Sunil Chhetri celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Pakistan(AFP)

Stimac had received a red card in the final Group A tie against Kuwait, which was also his second of the tournament, while Jhingan has been booked twice in the two appearances he has made.

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"Of course you want your leader, your boss to be there at the sidelines, which is not going to happen tomorrow, but a lot of preparation, almost all of it is done," said Sunil Chhetri at the pre-match press conference on Friday. The captain then assured the person replacing Jhingan will do justice to his role, before stating the qualities India's finest center-back brings to the table.

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"Personally I will always miss Sandesh Jhingan. No matter where I play, I want him. There are many reasons, but number one is because he does not like to lose. He will do anything not to lose and I love that boy. And I hope after the game, I can tell you that we didn't miss him," said the captain.

It has been a long season and the captain mentioned the group was feeling a "bit jittery" when it first arrived in the camp but that disappeared within a week, which is visible in the team's performance and result. He added “the brotherhood, the camaraderie, the combination” is at its peak.

However, Chhetri then shifted the attention towards the bigger picture – the Asian Cup, which will be held next year in Qatar. He expressed happiness on Kuwait and Lebanon being invited for the SAFF Championship, and believes opponents like them will aid the unit in preparing for the continental tournament, where they meet tougher opponents Australia, Syria, and Uzbekistan in the first round itself.

Also Read | ‘India conceded the goal not Anwar’: Sunil Chhetri on Kuwait's late equaliser at SAFF Championship

"A lot of boys have been outstanding throughout the year. But we have talked about to not get carried away. Where we want to go, what we have in next six months is massive. What helps when you play against teams like Lebanon and Kuwait is you get an idea of how Syria and to an extent Uzbek might be. Because Uzbekistan is a top team.

"Let me give an example we're going to face Australia. From now till the end of January, we're going to play in ISL where we might not face the same tempo and the same energy as to what Australia will be playing. So that is why whenever you get an opportunity to play matches like this, it really helps," he said.

'Not thinking about retirement'

After the match against Nepal last week, which India won 2-0, assistant coach Mahesh Gawli mentioned “Sunil Chhetri doesn't want to take rest.” And to some extent, this is the exact situation. The talismanic striker, who has 92 international strikes under his name, does most of the hardwork in matches and training, setting a perfect example for his peers. On Friday, Chhetri was the first Indian player seen on the training ground and was joined by his teammates a couple of minutes later. He juggled with the ball before joining coach Stimac for a chat.

So when asked if this was the last time we will see him donning the national jersey in Bangalore, Chhetri said the thoughts of retiring never crossed his mind. The captain even mentioned that his family has now started taking guesses, but every time they do he simply points out at his stats.

"There are a few parameters that I think about whether I'm contributing to the team or not. Whether I'm sprinting with Udanta or not, whether I'm going for headers with Sandesh or not, whether I'm able to score against Gurpreet or not in training. So all this markers tell me whether I am good enough for this team. The day I start seeing that it's not there, I'm done.

"Because there aren't many other motivation left for me to play. One is the fact that I love football, second you don't get an opportunity for to play for country. Only these two are left, apart from that the fame, the money…they don't impress me that much.

“But I cannot tell you whether it's tomorrow or in one year or in six months, I don't know. The day the petrol is finished, the diesel, or electric, whatever, I'm done,” he said.

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