Hero Intercontinental Cup

“You might not see a direct successor,” Sunil Chhetri opens up on India’s next leader

Uttiyo SarkarUttiyo Sarkar

May 27 2023
Sunil Chhetri Indian National Football Team

The India captain spoke on the Hero Intercontinental Cup preparations ahead of a busy schedule for the national team.

The India national team will be back in action in around two weeks’ time when they host the Hero Intercontinental Cup, the start of a busy summer for the Blue Tigers. India will also take part in the SAFF Championship after that, with the boys getting enough games to build their chemistry as preparations continue in full force for the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in January.

Ahead of the start of this busy period, India captain Sunil Chhetri feels quite motivated and excited about donning the colours of his national team and taking them to newer heights. He took part in an interactive session with journalists on 27 May, talking a lot about preparations and future challenges for the Blue Tigers.

Preparations for Intercontinental Cup and importance of more matches

Speaking about how the preparatory camp for the Intercontinental Cup is going, Chhetri revealed, “The camp is going well. The initial few days were reserved for testing. In the last week, we’ve done some work on the pitch. It’s about getting back to knowing the chemistry of the whole team, of every individual. The ones who’ve been under Igor have more knowledge than the new ones are getting to know what is needed.

“The senior players are helping those new to adapt. The younger players have been great and are very eager to learn. It’s been a long time since the national team got this much of time for a camp. The genuine mood of the camp is that we’re happy. Potentially nine games in the next month is something we’re looking forward to,” he added.

The Bengaluru FC star also believes it’s important for the Blue Tigers to play matches at a steady, regular pace to strongly prepare themselves for the Asian Cup. He explained: “Quite helpful (to play matches). The more games we play, the better it is for us. Most games we play against better opponents is better for us. We must ensure to manage our schedule well. More number of games is great, but we need to manage them. We’ll play Mongolia, Lebanon and Vanuatu. I don’t know how many of our players know how to play against Lebanon. We’ve never played against the other two teams, to my knowledge.

“That will be a good test, we don’t know the exact quality of those sides. After the first game, we’ll get a good glimpse of the other two teams. We’re only thinking about the upcoming first three games of the intercontinental cup, and then we’ll think about the SAFF Cup. The good thing is that we’ll have a decent number of games before the Asian Cup.

The coaching staff have told us to put our best foot forward, improve individually and improve as a team as well. The games always help, but what we do outside the camp is also important. The next eight months will need us to be at our best. The qualifying for the Asian Cup was great, but need to give justice to the hard work we’ve done. Take every game and improve,” he further stated.

How is the team gelling in preparation?

When asked about how he’s preparing for the upcoming international games, Chhetri simply stated, “I prepare with a big smile on my face. The games are important. Enough rest between games is important. But more matches are always good for a team. What happens is when we play for the club is different to the national team. A lot of the clubs operate differently and the composition is different.

The foreigners are an integral part of every club. The more training sessions we get, we’ll be able to acclimatize according to our talents. Bipin and Chhangte play with Jahouh, Apuia, Diaz, and Greg for the ISL and Durand Cup games, and then you see the way they play. So when those two come or even Nandha or whoever, it’s important for us to optimize our greatest strengths. We know the teams we’ll be facing, so mistakes will cost us very much. These games help us become a better team, realize what is needed and the bond needed for these big tournaments.”

Could Intercontinental Cup serve as platform for using new players?

The India national team captain was questioned if the upcoming intercontinental cup can serve as a platform to try our newer players or help the strongest XI that is likely ot play in the Asian Cup to get more game-time. He answered, “Slowly and steadily, we have to move towards having the same XI or 14 players as those who feature in the Asian Cup. That is not my headache, as players we need to give that to the coach.

As soon as he realizes, he needs to find that strongest XI. The more games the XI or 14 play from now to the Asian Cup, is best for the development of the team. Who plays in that is on the players to knock on the doors, but as soon as the national team fixes its first XI or 14 – be it the small things and who has what strengthen – that has to be applied on the team.”

Challenge of facing Lebanon next month and AFC Asian Cup draw

Chhetri was also questioned if facing a team like Lebanon, who will be playing in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, in the Intercontinental Cup can serve as a good preview of that tournament for India. He answered, “Lebanon and Kuwait will give you an understanding of how Syria plays. I haven’t seen much of Uzbekistan or Lebanon, Uzbek might be a level up, but when we play Lebanon or Kuwait – we’ll know how Syria has been.

Syria are a top team, we’ve had some crazy games against them. We played a lot against them under the Bob Houghton era. We played against Syria once under Igor, and we saw they’re a top side. So these teams will give you how Syria can operate, Uzbekistan is a level high and Australia is the top team in Asia.”

When asked if the AFC Asian Cup 2023 draw is tougher than the 2019 edition one, Chhetri stated, “It looks a bit more difficult than what we had the last time. But the Asian Cup is something we always knew will be difficult. Even when we met those teams last time, it was always difficult. We had some good moments, but we also had difficulties.

To give a target for myself or the team would not be ideal now. Right now, we’re thinking to be as tough an opponent as possible. In modern football, a lot of teams as underdogs have shown us – one name I feel is Morocco – who have proven if you are a strong unit you can pull off a lot of things. I’d like to tell the fans to not worry, we’ll do as good as possible.”

Life under new India sports Psychologist

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) recently appointed a new psychologist for the Indian national team in renowned psychologist Shayamal Vallabhjee. Speaking about how the team have felt working under him, the forward said,  “It’s been a week that he took over. In the first 7-10 days of our encounter with him, all of us are liking the interactions. The feedback we’ve got is that players are opening up with thoughts in their heads.

“It’s not easy for players to undergo a long domestic season, rest for a few days and then come play for the national team. Hence, people like Shyamal are helpful as he’s giving us more stuff to think about, giving answers to deal with stuff. A few of his seminars have been fruitful. Everyone is liking him and everyone is excited to work with him,” he added.

Three weeks of preparation enough before Asian Cup?

When asked if the rumored plan for the Indian team to get two-three weeks of preparation before the Asian Cup in January is enough, he said, “I’ve heard if we get three weeks that’d be optimum. Right now, I’ve only heard a few things. If we get three weeks, that’d be ideal. It’s not my opinion, a lot of think tanks are thinking about it. The good thing is that the goal of everyone involved is to give as much time and facilities for the national team to do well.”

Sunil Chhetri backs Sivasakthi to bounce back strongly

Even though his Bengaluru FC teammate Sivasakthi Narayanan wasn’t selected for the upcoming intercontinental cup squad, Chhetri believes he’ll bounce back strongly. He claimed, “It was his first camp recently. We could’ve only kept 26-27 players for the camp. The coach loves him, I think he can provide us with different dimensions. But a lot of other players have been here for a longer time. Knowing Sivasakthi, I can assure you that he’ll be hungrier to come back strongly. I’d be surprised if he isn’t in the mix for the next six months.”

Thoughts on U-17 team getting more exposure

Chhetri also had kind words for the current India U-17 team playing matches in Germany and also the Next Gen Cup, as he stated: “They are very important. When you play against top opposition, you realize that the level is different and how far you are. The youngsters who are getting matches against better opponents is a big way to improve as a footballing nation.

“All the young ones, who are good, if we can give them good training and a lot of development, that is ideal. When they’ll move into the U-19, U-21 or senior team, they’ll know what tit feels to play against stronger opponents. That is one of the tested ways for a nation to improve.”

Could India find another leader like Chhetri?

The Bengaluru FC star isn’t worrying about the Blue Tigers not being able to find a new leadership figure once he steps down, as he trusts the current senior players to be influential figures going forward. Chhetri said, “I’m not sure how that message was conveyed. You might not see a direct successor for me, because I’m not in the same age bracket as the other senior players, but they always try to do their best.

“The likes of Amrinder, Rahul, and Sandesh – are all leaders at their clubs and they are making sure that they’re good examples. They’re always encouraging the youngsters and helping them. What I used to say 6-7 years back about keeping fit, eating well and all – I don’t have to do that anymore. Those players are always helping the younger players grow. The people I’ve played with, I’m like fossil because I’ve played a long time, so you might not find an exact replacement – but those coming up will do well and all of them encourage the other ones.”

Pakistan using players with foreign origins

Sunil Chhetri was also asked about his thoughts on the Pakistan national team, who meet India in the SAFF Championship, using players from foreign origins in their team, and if India should do that too. He answered: “We have 1.4 billion people so we have a bigger pool to choose from. Pakistan choosing players from other countries isn’t new.

For example, Afghanistan or other examples, they have players who play aboard. I have a mixed opinion on it. When we’ll decide on inviting or allowing Indian-origin players from abroad, if the best ones are invited, that will always improve the team. It’s a quick fix for a shorter target, but in the longer run, we need to ensure to keep better home-grown talent. If we can find a balance for both, that will give us the biggest form of improvement. We are a huge country, and slowly but steadily we’re improving. But yes when you know the names India can get to play for the country, it’s a lucrative offer.”

What mistakes to avoid from 2019 Asian Cup

When asked about what mistakes India shouldn’t repeat in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup from the 2019 edition, Chhetri answered, “I think the pride of playing in the Asian Cup has been constant in the last three editions that I’ve played. Some have called Sunil Chhetri as the link to these three editions, but I feel there is more knowledge. Now we know more about what the teams we’re facing now, the grounds we’ll play now. The awareness has increased in the entire squad.

“This should be used for our own benefit. What we did well against Thailand and UAE is something we need to replicate, but also not repeat the mistakes we made against Bahrain. It’s highly important for us to improve that we keep rubbing our shoulders with the best in Asia. The Asian Cup is the ultimate tournament for that. But when you play the qualifiers, you can play against better sides. I’ve changed a lot of things for good in the past decade and I hope we can give our best account for ourselves going forward,” he added.

Recipe for impressive fitness

Speaking about how he keeps himself so fit at at the age of 38, Chhetri replied, “For me, it’s easy. I’m at my best here. The difficult part is to stay motivated. Keeping physically fit is the easiest part. I’m not trying to be funny, just honest. Telling your mind to keep yourself fit is the difficult part. Everyone can be fit, but telling your mind to do it every day is difficult. The senior ones here, Gurpreet, Sandesh, Amrinder – it forms a chain where the youngsters can see about how if you can do a few things in your life properly, it helps a lot. There are a lot of things the senior players are doing that the younger ones are following well.”

Do the younger Indian forwards have potential to match the foreign strikers?

Finally, when asked if the Indian forwards like Ishan Pandita, Manvir Singh or Rahim Ali can be as good as the foreign centre-forwards in the near future, Sunil Chhetri explained, “The clubs have to trust our forwards, but also the players have to work very hard to earn that respect. Bengaluru FC are a top team, for one, Roy Krishna and Sunil Chhetri play together. Roy sat two games, I sat six games, but all those eight games – Sivasakthi started. That is a testimony that if you perform well, the club will not see who you are – if a foreigner or Sunil Chhetri or whatever – because the club wants to win.

“People like Siva getting all the games isn’t that usual in the ISL, but it’s a catch-22 situation. The young forwards like Rahim Ali, Manvir or Liston – need to work a little bit harder because they’re comparing themselves with foreigners. If you are a no.9 or no.10, you need to fight with foreigners – that has been happening since the I-League days. That is the way it is. You’ll have to work a bit harder. The club encourages this also helps, which has been happening in BFC. In the ISL, it’s a fight for the forwards to compete with foreigners,” he finished off with.

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