Mumbai: India football captain Sunil Chhetri feels that qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup on a regular basis is essential for India to develop as a footballing nation, before thinking about playing in the World Cup.
“If we have to better ourselves, it’s a big benchmark that we are playing Asia cup regularly,” said Chhetri. “We talk about playing in the World Cup, (but) this is the real benchmark.”
Speaking ahead of India’s first Asian Cup qualification game against Myanmar, the star striker said the team is aiming for nothing less than a win.
“We sure want to win the game against Myanmar,” said India’s highest goalscorer. “The last time we played there (AFC Challenge Cup qualifier) we lost 0-1 and it dashed our dreams. We haven’t done very well in away games. So, I hope we improve upon our away record. We have a great chance to qualify for 2019 finals.”
The national team is presently training for the qualifiers at the Andheri Sports Complex in Mumbai. Team India last played a game in September last year – where they beat higher-ranked Puerto Rico 4-1 – a decision made to maintain a higher ranking in order to get a relatively easier group.
While India have been placed with Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Macau, supposedly an easier group, the 32-year-old minced no words to make his dismay clear.
“I am sure before the Puerto Rico game if somebody would have asked are you going to be beat them at home, I wouldn’t have said 100 percent. So until we play games we wouldn’t know, it’s very very important to keep playing. It’s a sad thing that after (that) we haven’t played a single game yet, which isn’t very ideal considering our country wants to improve,” said the Bengaluru FC player.
“We would love to play more international friendlies with opponents that are better than us,” added Chhetri.
The skipper agrees that the strategy has helped India avoid some of the big names but he said all that will only prove to be successful if the team qualifies for the Asian Cup.
“It’s not an easy pool; it’s relatively a better pool than what we have been getting in last 10-15 years. If we had more training time or played more matches it would have helped but that's in the past. We have got 13-14 days now to make sure what the Gaffer (coach Stephen Constantine) wants us to do. This is different from club football. This is massive, this is huge, we have got a great chance of qualifying for the biggest tournament in Asia,” said Chhetri.
When asked about the ongoing I-League – where Chhetri’s Bengaluru FC, defending champions, sit fifth in the table and minnows Aizawl FC are leading – Chhetri praised Aizawl for their dream run and expressed happiness on growing competition.
“Personally as a Bengaluru FC player, I am not happy because we are use to winning the league in the last three years. But on a whole, it’s really heartening to see a team like Aizawl FC do this good. It’s so difficult to win at their home, something like how Stoke City does, you are not going to win when you go to their home.
“Shillong is doing good, East Bengal are finally doing good. Chennai had a big result against East Bengal. Just when people thought that the league is done and it’s only about East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC. So, it’s good for the league on a whole,” Chhetri signed off....