Sunil Chhetri: Never dreamt of playing 100 international matches

India take on Kenya in their second game of the Hero Intercontinental Cup at the Mumbai Football Arena on Monday. A win for either of the teams shall strengthen their position of confirming a berth in the all-important final to be played on June 10. Also, the fact that both the nations have never faced each other before is sure to set some fireworks on the field.

However, no matter how tensed proceedings may be prior to the match, the majority of the focus will definitely be on India’s ‘Knight in shining armour’ - captain Sunil Chhetri. The Bengaluru FC forward will play his 100th game for the nation, becoming only the second player after the legend Bhaichung Bhutia to achieve the feat.

On the eve of this landmark achievement, Chhetri addressed the media at a press conference in Mumbai. The 33-year-old striker exclaimed that the feeling still hasn’t sunk in ahead of the game. “I had a dream but never dreamt of playing 100 international matches. This is unbelievable. Honestly, I never think much about milestones. It was only when I was having a chat with my mom the other night that she became a bit emotional. How big it was for her made me realise how big the occasion is.”

Chhetri recounted his experience when he was selected to play for his country for the very first time. “I still remember my first match for India. We were in Pakistan and Nabi-da (Syed Rahim Nabi) and I were the rookies. We were kind of chilling knowing that we may not be fielded. But Sukhi-sir (Sukhwinder Singh) made both of us start the game. I scored a goal and all in that euphoria ran to the Pakistani fans and started to celebrate.”

The Indian football team has seen steady growth in the past few years with Chhetri being at the thick of things, but the Indian captain singled out the camaraderie within the squad as one of the driving forces behind the transformation. “We are on the right path. There has been a steady growth and we need to go far. Rubbing shoulders with the best will help us improve further. The desire in the present squad makes it special. The camaraderie is great and there is not a single ego clash within. There’s an ardent desire to improve and it's really good to lead this bunch of players. We have the desire and the talent. We need to keep working hard”

The impact that Chhetri has had over the Indian team has been unparalleled. With 59 goals to his name, he is currently the nation’s all-time highest goal-scorer – a truly remarkable achievement in itself.  The hard work put in by the striker over the years has paid off and he tries to set in an example for the younger generation players to follow in his footsteps. “I always try to be a good example. I have understood that lectures don’t work. If I go up to Udanta (Singh) and say to him about the importance of being on time, the importance of hitting the gym, maybe he will not take me seriously. Instead, I try to do it for myself so that the boys can follow. That’s so satisfying,” he concluded.

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