Indian men’s football team captain Sunil Chhetri has hailed the growing love for Indian football in recent times after the team won three back-to-back trophies in 2023. 

The Blue Tigers, who beat Kuwait in the final to lift the SAFF Championship in Bengaluru, received a lot of support from the fans in the stands and on social media alike that prompted the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to send the Indian men’s and women’s football teams to the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China that will be held in September. 

Sunil Chhetri and Co. have a packed six months ahead of them as they will play the King’s Cup in Thailand, Merdeka Tournament in Malaysia, and Asian Games, in China in September and October before the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers later in October. 

The biggest assignment on the horizon for the Indian team is the AFC Asian Cup in January which will see the Blue Tigers take part in Asia’s biggest football competition in back-to-back editions for the first time. 

Chhetri feels the interest in Indian football off the field has increased after the team’s recent performances and the energy among the supporters is the greatest he has seen in the recent past. 

“I think this is the best momentum that we have seen in Indian football in the last 20 years where every nook and corner, people are talking about Indian football. Everyone wants to know what is happening,” Chhetri said in a YouTube interview with Revsportz

“I am not talking about the quality, the on-field things but off the field it has been special. During the SAFF Championship in Bengaluru, all fans of the respective Hero ISL clubs came under one banner - the national flag and wholeheartedly supported us. This is the India that I envision,” he added. 

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The 38-year-old feels the Asian Games will provide a great opportunity to the Indian football team to face top-quality opponents on a big stage and with the Asian Games being an U-24 tournament this year with just three senior players allowed to participate, it will give them a chance to showcase their skills. 

“Right now we are at a stage where we need to play important games against better opposition in bigger tournaments. In that context, Asian Games is a very important tournament to be part of. I am glad for all the boys that are going to be selected,” Chheti said. 

“For youngsters like Rahim Ali who has been dying to get minutes, or youngsters like Rahul KP and Vikram Partap who are good in the camps but the country can't get to see them, will be licking their lips. If they get a chance, they should really capitalise on it. It's an opportunity for them to show the head coach that we are also ready for the senior team,” he added. 

The draw for the Asian Games was made on Thursday with India being slotted alongside China, Bangladesh, and Myanmar in their group. Chhetri though expects no easy matches at such a big stage. 

“China is one of the top teams in Asia that we will play against and two of the teams that we are quite accustomed to playing against. Nowadays we can't say any team is stronger or weaker especially after you saw how Bangladesh played against Kuwait in the SAFF Championship semi-final,” he said. 

“But the good thing is that we will play China who have improved a lot and who are also trying to be in the top ten teams in Asia,” added the skipper. 

India also learnt its fate in the second round of the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers where they were grouped with defending Asian champions Qatar, Kuwait, and the winner of the round one match between Afghanistan and Mongolia.

Speaking about that draw, Chhetri felt that the team needed to face the challenge with confidence. 

“I have got a mixed feeling. We worked really hard to get into Pot 2 and when you compare your group to the other groups, you feel, we are been better not to be there and there are groups we wish we would be there. But we are happy and we will take it,” he said. 

“We want to treat every game as it is our last game. We talked about it in the dressing room that whenever we come to play for the country, we got to give everything that we have got. We will have ups and downs, but the effort that you give when you play for the country should always be constant. That is the kind of culture we want to leave in the dressing room,” he concluded.