The Blue Tigers’ all-time leading goalscorer also spoke about the importance of fitness in modern-day football.

On Wednesday, two days after the Indian football team beat Bangladesh in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier in Doha, skipper Sunil Chhetri spoke to the media. The 36-year-old had a memorable game on Monday, having scored both the goals that resulted in his team’s win over the Bengal Tigers.

Taking questions from various media personnel, Sunil Chhetri touched upon several topics, including the tally of his goals, comparisons with Lionel Messi, reflections on the team’s World Cup Qualifying campaign so far and more.

Comparisons with Messi

After scoring his 73rd and 74th international goals, Chhetri was compared to Lionel Messi. When asked about it he said that he doesn’t even come close to the Argentine legend.

“I’m not annoyed by the comparison. It doesn’t bother me either because people have their opinions and nowadays have platforms where they can share and discuss them. In my opinion, there is no comparison whatsoever. There are thousands of footballers who are better than me and all of them are fans of Messi. What I’m proud of, is the fact that I have played over 100 matches for my country and scored 74 goals for the team. I’ll keep working hard till my last minute as an Indian international,” the striker said.

What keeps him motivated

Sunil Chhetri and Bipin Singh in a training session ahead of Bangladesh-India clash

Sunil Chhetri also commented on the thoughts surrounding his age, opining that he doesn’t find it wrong that fans are worried.

“It is, infact, scientifically proven that the older you get, metabolism is slower. Hence, it’s not wrong to think that with age, players decline. Meanwhile, I personally feel that it’s easier for me to take care of myself at 36 because at the age you’re more knowledgeable and aware of what exactly works for you. Motivation levels go down – that’s the only disadvantage. The more you achieve with age, the less targets and objectives you have. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

“Anyways, I’m enjoying my football. As long as the hunger and zeal is present, I’ll keep enjoying and I’ll be around. The day I lose the zeal, I’ll leave. It’s as simple as that,” the Bengaluru FC star further added.

What he said to Stimac after goal against Bangladesh

The Bangladesh-India game remained locked at 0-0 till the 79th minute, when Sunil Chhetri scored with a deft header off Ashique Kuruniyan’s cross. He immediately wheeled away in celebration and was seen telling head coach Igor Stimac something. During Wednesday’s media interaction, the forward shed light on what exactly transpired between them.

“I was just telling him, ‘Delete your memory of what I did on Brandon’s cross earlier.’ That was an easy opportunity and it was very disappointing to see my effort go wide. I should have kept it simple and found the target, instead of allowing myself to be overcome by emotions,” Chhetri said.

He further added, “It was a simple tap-in, so after scoring I told him, ‘Apologies for the first miss.’ We were very fortunate. If Ashique hadn’t crossed the way he did, it would have been another of those games, like we had back at Salt Lake. We were once again making the same mistakes of not converting our chances. Nowadays, teams defend well and it’s hard to get clear-cut chances. Hence, we trained hard for three days and knew very well as to what Brandon (Fernandes) was capable of. I couldn’t excuse myself for missing and was relieved when I finally scored.”

What keeps him going

Chhetri’s brace helped India secure a victory against Bangladesh on Monday

When asked what keeps him going despite being the senior-most player in the side, Sunil Chhetri said, “I keep going because I am wearing the Indian football team jersey. India has 1.4 billion people and I am one of the 11 names chosen to represent my country.

“Wanting and trying to do our best is a bare minimum at that stage. It’s not as difficult as the path towards getting there, so that’s what we’re supposed to do. On some days I don’t score while on other days I convert my chances well. Either way, I ensure that I want and try to do my best,” he further added.

How to improve as a team

“The players are comfortable with the style the head coach wants us to play. It is a very simplified one and we need continuous training and matches to keep building on it. We want to see more passing, as it would mean running less and more 1v1 situations. The players want that too and are capable of it, but it needs time. A lot of players are comfortable with the ball and it will definitely come soon,” the Blue Tigers’ skipper said.

“Our next step from here is to be braver with the ball. We understand defending, communicating and taking care of ourselves. Everyone in the team is physically really fit and we are a very young side with many new boys.

“The head coach encourages us to keep the ball and the way forward is to keep the ball more and look to increase the number of passes and organized attacks. I tell the boys and myself to just turn up and give everything on the pitch and then you will take whatever result comes. You might not get as many moments of individual brilliance and technical play like through-balls, but we can fight by coming together. The opponent should think that we will be annoying and fighting and defending as a team and that is the first step. Slowly, other things will come from there,” he further added.

Importance of fitness

Sunil Chhetri leading his team in a training session ahead of India-Afghanistan game

At 36, Chhetri has shown how important fitness is, for a long and successful career in the game. He touched upon that fact, once again in the media interaction.

“I advise youngsters to think about what you can do and not think about what others are saying. I learnt this early in my life. If you are more focused and thinking about yourself, you won’t get time to worry about what others are saying and thinking,” he maintained. I stress on fitness because it does not require brains. Doing the right exercises, avoiding the wrong kind of food, taking good sleep, drinking enough water, all these are easy and that is why I demand high fitness,” he explained.

“Bhaichung Bhutia always told me that you have to try and be a good example and that is what I try to do. Being punctual, eating well, taking care of my body – the boys can see it and it is not difficult to motivate them. Earlier, I used to feel like a warden at times, but now it’s a natural process in the team.”

FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers

Sunil Chhetri concluded by speaking his mind on India’s ongoing FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifying campaign. The Blue Tigers are currently at third place in Group E, with six points from seven matches.

He said, “Against Bangladesh, we were hurried at times in the final third and we will surely learn with more matches. The boys are ready now – they’re hungry and they work very hard. The coaches and technical staff are in sync with the players. The coach is not afraid of giving chances to players. If he sees someone who is good, he will always give the boy a chance. No player can say that I didn’t get a chance, which is a good thing. No coach likes to change his team every time. The players also have to help out and once it clicks, it will be more stable.

“Even if we win the last match against Afghanistan, I don’t think we can call the campaign a success. I look back at the matches against Bangladesh in Kolkata, Oman in Guwahati and Afghanistan in Dushanbe, where we did not play well. We have been hot and cold and that’s what bothers me. We need to continue playing at the same level,” he signed off.

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