India’s history at the AFC Asian Cup is fairly brief. The team has played 13 matches in the continental showpiece and are yet to feature in a knockout fixture in the tournament. 

The Blue Tigers have tasted victory on just three occasions in Asia’s premier competition while facing nine defeats. They have scored 12 goals in the Asian Cup across four appearances.

The numbers don’t make great reading but Sunil Chhetri, one of India’s greatest-ever footballers still has pretty impressive numbers to show for his Asian Cup exploits. 

The Indian captain is set to appear in his third AFC Asian Cup, the joint most by an Indian alongwith Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. The 39-year-old though only has five appearances to his name in Asia’s premier competition. 

Chhetri though has scored four goals in those five matches which has contributed to significant moments in India’s history at the Asian Cup.

The Indian skipper could be another two goals away from breaking into the top ten all-time leading goalscorers in AFC Asian Cup history and it would be another feather in the cap of a player playing for a side that has never qualified for the knockout stage of the Asian Cup. 

Chhetri’s first goal in the AFC Asian Cup came against South Korea in a 4-1 defeat in the 2011 edition. While it may have had little significance in the context of the match, for Indian football, it was huge. 

It was their first goal in the AFC Asian Cup for 47 years after they had gone the entire 1984 edition without scoring a goal. Chhetri scored again in India’s next match against Bahrain to account for two-thirds of the team’s goals in the edition.

Fast forward to 2019, India returned to the AFC Asian Cup after eight years and that itself was an achievement. With nothing much expected from the Blue Tigers, Chhetri inspired the team to their first-ever victory in the Asian Cup in 55 years as his brace sunk Thailand 4-1. 

Without Chhetri, India’s story in the continental showpiece would look very different. 

Come January 2024, 13 years after his first Asian Cup appearance, Chhetri remains Indian football’s main man. If the Blue Tigers are to add another chapter to their history in the competition, the captain is certain to have a big hand in it. 

In 2011, Chhetri broke India’s goal drought in the Asian Cup, eight years he was instrumental as India ended their wait for a win in the tournament. As 2024 beckons can India end their wait for a first-ever appearance in a knockout game at the continental showpiece? With Chhetri still around, there is hope.