Sunil Chhetri: I am enjoying my football, not going away anytime soon

Sunil Chhetri may have completed 15 years in international football on Friday, but his appetite and passion for the game still burns as incandescently as it did on his debut. India’s all-time leading goal-scorer is enjoying his game and made it clear that he doesn’t intend on calling time on his playing days anytime soon.

“I don’t want to put numbers (on how long I will keep playing). But I am enjoying my football and I am not going away anytime soon. I told my wife that I am feeling so fit. I am going to challenge Udanta (Singh) and Ashique Kuruniyan for a sprint. Unless a Sahal (Abdul Samad) scores a lot of goals and pushes me away (from the national team), I am going to be there, playing for the team,” Chhetri quipped during an interaction with the Indian football team’s Facebook page on Thursday.

Now a legend himself, Chhetri remembers the time when he was beginning his football journey and the impact that another Indian footballing legend, the Sikkimese Sniper, Bhaichung Bhutia had on him. “The influence of Bhaichung bhai has been immense. I think I was in class nine or ten when we went to watch the Durand Cup and Bhaichung bhai was there. I really wanted to meet him then, but I couldn’t. Two years later I signed for Mohun Bagan and then we got the news that he had also signed for Mohun Bagan,” he recalled.

“The first thing he came and told me was ‘I have heard about you kid and you are doing well.’ From then, to share the same dressing room with him for the club and country has been one of the best experiences of my life. I learnt a lot from not only him, but the seniors in the team, but (Bhaichung) bhai was very influential. Not only did he teach me a lot of things on the pitch, but also off the pitch,” Chhetri said.

After scoring on his international debut against Pakistan in 2005, he has gone on to represent the Blue Tigers 115 times and found the back of the net on 72 occasions, making him second on the list of active international goal-scorers behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and above Lionel Messi.

One goal that still stands out for him though was his strike against Myanmar in Yangon during the Asian Cup qualifiers in 2017. Chhetri bagged the winner during added time as India won 1-0 and he explained just why that is one of his favourite goals.

“That goal gave us the confidence and set us up for the coming matches (of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers). That game we weren’t playing particularly well. We were very defensive. We didn’t have much going forward. Sixty-sixth minute, the Flash (Udanta Singh) comes in and changes the game for us. Because of him, we scored the goal,” Chhetri revealed.

“If we didn’t get those three points and come back to India, we would not have had the confidence of going and doing what we did in the remaining four games. I think the goal would not have happened if not for Udanta. Jeje and my petrol were done, we were finished. If it wasn’t for Udanta, we would not have scored that goal,” he added.

Looking ahead at his future with the Blue Tigers, Chhetri believes he still has a few more years left in the tank. "I am fortunate to have played 15 years for my country. It is a dream, three or four years more probably and it will be (nearly) 20 years. Who would have thought to play 20 years and so I am living on my dream," he said.

While analyzing the future of football in India, Chhetri opined, “We already saw what hosting the Under-17 boys’ World Cup did for the country. I meet these boys and I see them; they are so confident. They had a lot of exposure, playing against the next Neymar, or the next Messi’s of the world. Because they had so many friendlies against the top countries of the world.”

He continued, “I’m pretty sure this is going to happen to the girls as well. It sets the bar and prepares them so well for the future. I am so happy that the AIFF is working so hard to get as many tournaments (like the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup) as we can because it’s not easy. So, the more we get, the better it is. It’s most beneficial for the youngsters.”

The 35-year-old also views the upcoming AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022 Finals that will hosted by India as a big plus. “The Asian Cup is a massive opportunity, I’m sure the players are excited. Everyone wants to be at that stage. I know that feeling when we play the Asia Cup, you play against Bahrain and UAE. That’s were a footballer wants to be,” he said.

“My advice is ‘Girls, start training from now.’ Because the last thing you want to feel after the tournament is that ‘I wish I could have done more’. I know there’s time but start preparing from now. What happens once the tournament is finished is that you always think about what you could have done. It’s a different level, and we will be playing against the best of Asia. So, make sure you leave no stone unturned when it comes to preparing yourself,” Chhetri added.

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