Can sense the atmosphere is changing: Chhetri on growing interest around Indian football
The senior men’s Indian football team is peaking at the right time ahead of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 scheduled to take place in January next year. The Blue Tigers have won three tournaments so far this year - the Hero Tri-Nation Friendly Football Tournament, the Hero Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship title.
The senior men’s Indian football team is peaking at the right time ahead of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 scheduled to take place in January next year. The Blue Tigers have won three tournaments so far this year - the Hero Tri-Nation Friendly Football Tournament, the Hero Intercontinental Cup, and the SAFF Championship title.
They have done so while going undefeated in the aforementioned tournaments, winning seven out of 11 games. During this run, Igor Stimac’s side have also scored 16 goals besides conceding just twice. Earlier in June, India moved up by one spot in the FIFA Rankings, breaking into the top 100 for the first time in five years.
The Indian team’s desire to play on the front foot and an attractive brand of football has also witnessed supporters turn in large numbers to cheer the team this year - be it Imphal, Bhubaneswar, or Bengaluru. India captain Sunil Chhetri acknowledged that there has been a renewed interest in Indian football, but said that the team still has a long way to go.
"There was never a problem with the match-going fans, but yes, there has been an increase in the number of people who have started talking about football, and I think that's a really good thing. I can sense the atmosphere is changing. But at the same time, I know we have jumped up a few ranks, we still have a long way to go. We have to just keep up the good work and stay focused on where we want to reach now," Chhetri said in an interview with Hindustan Times.
India will be participating in back-to-back editions of the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in history. The Blue Tigers have been handed a tough draw after being pitted alongside Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria.
"Right now, international football is such that no one knows what will happen, and underdogs, too, can win! You just never know what is going to happen in football. That's why we have to give our best, and that's a message I am trying to send to the rest of the team," he stated.
In the 2019 edition, India began their campaign with a thumping 4-0 win over Thailand followed by a 0-2 defeat to the United Arab Emirates. They went down to Bahrain in their final group game, where they conceded a penalty in injury time, quashing the team’s hopes of making it to the knockout stages. Chhetri was looking forward to the continental tournament and made it clear that India should be qualifying for every edition.
"The (AFC) Asian Cup is like the World Cup for us. It is right at the very top of our list, and therefore, performing our best there is paramount. I don't mean to put this pressure on the boys, but we should be qualifying for the (AFC) Asian Cup every time," said Chhetri.
With 92 goals to his name on the international stage, Chhetri finds himself in an illustrious list. He is the third highest goalscorer in international football among active footballers, just behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. He is also among the all-time top 10 international players with the most number of goals. Chhetri brushed off comparisons with the two modern greats, but also revealed what playing for the national team means to him.
"There's no comparison with the rest of the nine names on the list. I mean, I am a fan of players like Ronaldo and Messi, just like so many other fans of them. There's just no comparison, and I don't take this list, or whatever this list is, too seriously. But, yes, when it comes to representing the national team, I can be even better than them," he signed off.