The 35-year-old expressed his admiration for new head coach Igor Stimac and the system he has brought in.

The Indian national football team is gearing up for one of its hardest and yet the most important campaign for the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers next month. Ahead of their preparatory camp in Goa on Monday, skipper Sunil Chhetri spoke to Hindustan Times about the new system brought in by the new head coach, the young squad, need for a reserves league and more.

“I think the players enjoy this freedom,” he began. “And I like the way the coach gives confidence to everyone. It means the first XI can’t get complacent.”

Despite his first couple of tournaments bringing some unfavourable results, Igor Stimac’s system showed glimpses of the unbelievable talent that India possesses. The Croatian handed chances to a band of youngsters and they didn’t disappoint. 

Chhetri was all praise for the coach giving the new players an opportunity to prove their calibre saying, “He was a footballer and he understands. He encourages players to pass the ball, ask for the ball. That is why the likes of (Anirudh) Thapa and Sahal (Abdul Samad) are in the team.”

“We are still learning the process, but even in the losses in the Intercontinental Cup, the silver lining was that we could match opponents till defensive errors took the game away from us. The day we get it, we will be very strong and play beautifully too,” added the talisman.

The fact that Stimac is trying to adopt a similar system to that of the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League clubs, pleases Chhetri as it helps the players to adapt quickly. “The Spanish coach at East Bengal wants to play from behind, Chennai City too.”

“For me, Udanta (Singh), Gurpreet (all from Bengaluru FC), it is nothing different. For Mandar (Rao Desai) (FC Goa) it isn’t different. Even Vinit (Rai) has told me that Delhi Dynamos did it last year,” he added.

Further, the forward expressed the need for a new league for the reserves, so as to allow game-time for the squad players in the teams. “Those who don’t play the ISL game should play the reserves game next day. Those players will get competitive games and when one of them, such as Manvir Singh, joins the India camp, he would be way more confident than he is now.”

“Manvir is a top player, but he is either played out of position or gets a handful of games because FC Goa wouldn’t play him over Coro (Ferran Corominas),” Chhetri anguished. “India needs a strong reserves league and it is doable,” he asserted.

The skipper also suggested that the Durand Cup be made an official pre-season tournament and asked why not? “Make the Durand a proper pre-season tournament and I would welcome it because we don’t get enough games.”

A few years ago, the striker took over the legacy left by footballing greats such as Bhaichung Bhutia and IM Vijayan. Since then, Chhetri has been at the helm of the national team, scoring a magnificent number of goals. 

However, considering he is in his mid-30s, who will be the next to carry the hopes of millions? “There are a number of players who can do what I provide to the team on the pitch. Sahal can change games because he can dribble, pass and score. And he is not scared. He doesn’t think.”

“The day I get a Sahal or a Thapa, or anyone giving the team what I probably give right now, I will happily leave. But, unless we get that guy, I am not leaving,” said the skipper.