92 goals at the international level. Fit and firing at 38, Sunil Chhetri remains the Indian football team’s highest goalscorer and third overall in the list of active footballers, only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. And more often than not, it has been Chhetri who has single-handedly steered the Blue Tigers to countless wins during the course of his career.

From scoring at the AFC Asian Cup, Asia’s biggest continental competition, to scoring in cup finals to win trophies for his side, Chhetri has done it all. But among the 92 goals that he has scored so far in national colours, which one has been the most important?

“The Kyrgyzstan goal at home (in 2017),” said Chhetri, during the second part of his interview as part of the In The Stands show hosted by Suyash Upadhyaya.

Latching on to a lobbed pass from Jeje Lalpekhlua following a quick counter-attack, Chhetri produced a stunning finish at the edge of the box to break the deadlock. His goal eventually proved to be the difference between the two sides, helping India record a solid win at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, spurring his side’s chances of securing qualification for the AFC Asian Cup 2019.

“Jeje (Lalpekhlua)’s pass (the scoop), that was the only way he could have passed. And the scoop is such a difficult skill to execute that I'm not sure many people understand it. To pass the way he did and (for) the ball to land exactly on my run, is such a difficult task.”

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After victories over Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan in their opening two games, India beat Macau in the next two games to secure qualification for the 2019 edition. India eventually topped their group after bagging 13 points, on par with second-placed Kyrgyz Republic. Chhetri recalled the importance of winning against the Kyrgyz at home and how it played a huge part in their journey of making it to the 2019 edition of the AFC Asian Cup, having missed out on the previous edition.

“The importance of the goal is why I chose that goal. The importance was huge. Beating Kyrgyzstan at home was paramount and pivotal for us to qualify (for the AFC Asian Cup) and we knew that. The way we defended, the goal was the icing on the cake.”

Talking about the best moments of his footballing career, Chhetri listed India’s victory over Thailand at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 among others. With India qualifying for back-to-back AFC Asian Cup editions for the first time in history, the Indian captain also listed their victories during the third round of the qualifiers held last year in Kolkata as ones that were significant in his international career.

“There are many,” he said, when asked about the best moments of his career.

“One of them was qualifying for the AFC Cup (2016) final, where we went and we played against Air Force Club. Sadly, we lost. The match against Thailand in the (AFC Asian Cup 2019). The team was absolutely on fire. (Anirudh) Thapa, Udanta (Singh), Ashique (Kuruniyan), (Sandesh) Jhingan were absolutely on fire.”

He further stated: “Us qualifying this time (for the AFC Asian Cup 2023) in Kolkata convincingly. First game (of my international career) against Pakistan, I'll never forget. And in a more greedy sense I hope there are many that I can cherish.”

India are slated to play two more tournaments later this year such as the King’s Cup and Merdeka Cup before the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in January next year. Paired alongside Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria, they have been handed a tough draw in Group B.

The Blue Tigers were on the verge of qualifying to the knockout stage in the 2019 edition of the continental event, but a heartbreaking defeat to Bahrain in their final group game washed away their hopes of progressing towards the knockout stages. Chhetri underlined the importance of leaving no stone unturned in their preparation and giving their best in the upcoming edition.

“At least, once the tournament finishes, we should not have any regrets. People can think a million things and they can have many expectations which they should, but as players - one that has desires to be there and number two, is going to be there - should not leave anything from now till January second week and should grasp everything,” he explained.

“So that when we meet together and with each to the best of their strengths, collectively, we go and put everything together. These are the nights you want to be part of, playing against Australia. It’s one of these days you are going to remember when you are going to die,” he further said.

Watch the second part of the In the Stands with Chhetri below: