The Indian asserted that he does not take the rankings too seriously and only plays to win every game.
As hosts India prepare to take on Kenya in the Hero Intercontinental Cup on Monday, the game would be a milestone event for yet another reason. India’s captain and star striker Sunil Chhetri is due to earn his 100th international cap, a testament to his brilliant performance on the pitch, leading the side pretty confidently and fearlessly in national colours, becoming only the second player after ‘Sikkimese Sniper’ Bhaichung Bhutia to achieve this feat. Ahead of this big day, the captain sat down with the media to express his feelings about his footballing journey so far.
Chhetri recalled the moments from his international debut as he prepares to take the pitch for the 100th time in his career. “The first time I played for India was against Pakistan (in Pakistan). Me and Syed Rahim Nabi were room partners. We were chilling knowing that we may not be fielded by Sukhi Sir (Sukhwinder Singh). But fortunately both of us were in the team. As mere 20-year old kids back then, it was an unbelievable feeling, a surreal experience! We scored first (I was lucky to get my first goal) however Pakistan equalised after the 80th minute,” he said.
As we build-up to India’s next match, the hype is more around the skipper’s milestone game and Chhetri hopes to keep his emotions in control and play the game as they should. “I never dreamt of playing 100 International matches but I always dreamt of representing my country one day. Having come a long way since that moment, it is truly unbelievable.”
“To be honest, I never think much about milestones. It was only when I was having a chat with my mom the other night [and she became a bit emotional] did I realise how big the occasion is,” he remarked.
He also thanked his well-wishers for being so supportive all these years. “I need to thank my parents, my friends, my family, all my coaches, fellow players, fans, media for their tremendous support throughout my journey in being able to be the second person in history play 100 International matches for my country. This is indeed a special feeling”, he added.
The Indian skipper first hattrick in eight years.
Replying to questions about facing pre-match jitters and anticipation ahead of a game, Chhetri said he has learnt a lot in all these years about how to handle them and deal with them equally. “These are something that I have faced before every game [but I don’t like them at all]. I am a very restless human being, probably wanting a game to start at 10 AM rather than waiting till 8 PM. But these are something I have adapted to, learned and changed my mindset according to the situation.”
Chhetri’s is going to be the second Indian after his ‘mentor’ Bhaichung Bhutia to achieve the feat of 100 international outings. The Indian captain believes that as he has grown older he has instilled a few qualites filtering out the unnecessary stuff. “Once you grow older and you play more, you understand what’s not good for you rather than what works for you. As you grow older, you tend to start filtering out stuff which is not needed and which is not important for you. That’s what I have learnt. So I do the things which work for me. It’s monotonous but I hope it continues,” he said.
The Captain admitted there has been a huge difference in Indian football in the last few years and confidently admitted to try and improve in every single opportunity they get to play for the nation, be it home or away.
“First of all, I don’t take the ranking too seriously[because its a bit tricky]. Me and my boys try to make sure that we win every single game we play for our country. We are on the right path. There has been a steady growth and we need to go far. Rubbing shoulders with the best teams will only help us improve further. To reach inside 100s was difficult, but to stay there will be even more difficult. We generally do pretty well at home, but I really want us to do well in away games also,” Chhetri opined.
Chhetri who is third active goal scorer in international football will be the second Indian to make 100 appearances for India after Bhaichung Bhutia
India sit pretty at the top of the four-team in the Hero Intercontinental Cup after their facile 5-0 victory over Chinese Taipei in the first match. Recollecting some of the toughest opponents he had faced during his career, Chhetri also added that facing tougher opponents and sometimes, losing against them have helped them to address their shortcomings and improve as a team. “I have been involved in many tough matches. The games against South Korea, Australia and Bahrain in the 2011 Asian Cup were tough. We played Japan in Bengaluru and that was tough too.”
“As a player, you are lucky if you get tougher games and the toughest one will be against Kenya tomorrow. The matches coming up the next day are always the toughest. The Asian Cup in UAE will also be very tough,” he said.
“Sometimes I feel the importance of the match makes it tougher. The matches against Myanmar (away in Yangon) and the home match against the Kyrgyz Republic were tough on our road to qualification for the UAE Asian Cup.”
The Indian captain said he feels honoured to lead a great bunch of boys in the national team. He also enjoys the competition against the youngsters in his quest to get fitter and better. “I feel good when I speak with Udanta (Singh) and sprint with him; I feel good when I try to get past Sandesh (Jhingan); I feel good when I try to score against the big wall (Gurpreet Singh Sandhu). All of them are true professionals,” he addressed.
“The desire in the present squad makes it special. The camaraderie is great and there is not a single ‘rotten apple’ in the team. There’s an ardent desire to improve and it’s really good to lead this bunch of players. We have the desire and the talent. We need to keep working hard.”
On being asked about how he helps the youngsters settle in the squad, Chhetri explains the concept of ‘example being better than precept’ which works very well.
“I always try to be a good example. I have understood that lectures don’t work. If I go up to Udanta and say to him about the importance of being on time, the importance of hitting the gym, maybe he will not take me seriously. Instead, I try to do it for myself so that the boys can follow. That’s so satisfying,” he replied.
“It gives me immense joy that Jeje (Lalpekhlua) who started in front of my eyes just the other day is now 2 short of 50 International matches. The effort to improve yourself is the hallmark of the squad.”
Watch Sunil Chhetri talk about his 100th India appearance
Chhetri also cherishes every moment of his career in Kolkata. “I feel special about Kolkata. I can’t feel more proud. For a kid born in my time, it would be a great ambition to play for either of the two clubs and thankfully I played for both. It was a huge feeling to sign for Mohun Bagan and later for East Bengal. I cherish the love which I have got from both the clubs.”
During the press conference, Sunil also clarified his thoughts and feelings regarding his video message in which he asked football fans to attend matches, which created a tumult uproar in the Indian football community on Saturday evening.
“It was something that came out of me spontaneously. There was never a second shot for the video[ask Shankar, the video editor]. There was no hidden agenda at all. It was something I wanted to say, to the best of my capabilities. Most of the people have taken it positively. If some of them are hurt, I again say sorry to those, but do turn up on match days”, Chhetri remarked.
Tickets for the match against Kenya are available online on www.bookmyshow.com and also at the box office counters at the venue. The match will also be telecast live on Star Sports 2, Star Sports HD 2, Jio TV and Hotstar.