For one of India’s foremost footballing icons Sunil Chhetri, the country’s latest surge to 101 in the FIFA world rankings is a step in the right direction for Indian football at large. However, recently, in a statement issued by the captain, Chhetri said that the rankings are a fickle measurement and there is still a long way to go for Indian football. On Monday, Chhetri spoke to Scroll and elaborated on his statement.
“First of all I am really really happy. As far as I have played, in my eleven years for the nation, we never reached 101 so I am really very happy. I am really proud of the team and also all the coaching staff involved,” said Chhetri. “What I meant was we shouldn’t get carried away. The way the ranking works is that an important tournament, if you lose at home against a not so-fancy-team, you lose 30 to 40 ranking points.”
The 32-year-old elaborated, “It also depends on how many games are happening at the same time. It also depends on who is playing at home and who is playing away. It is really very fickle so you can’t put your finger and say that this is exactly what is happening in the world. So that is what I meant and the message was more to my own players, to myself and then my countrymen.”
A long road ahead
Chhetri stressed on the fact that the recent string of wins for India did not mean that the Blue Tigers were better than the 40 teams they have jumped.
“We shouldn’t think that suddenly in two months we have done everything well and crossed 40 teams and we are better than them. We jumped the rankings because of the way the ranking works,” said Chhetri.
The Indian skipper, who has been in splendid form himself, backed the national squad to continue its rich form. “We are doing well and winning 11 games out of 13 international games isn’t easy, no matter who you are and who you are playing against. But in a country like India we can never be satisfied. Even if we win are next 20 games, we will still be behind. We have a long way to go and let’s not get carried away,” cautioned the 32-year-old.
India finally beat Myanmar after 64 years in an Asian Cup qualifier in their own backyard. Chhetri emphasised on the significance of winning at Myanmar.
“I am really happy that we won Myanmar away and it wasn’t an easy match. I was really happy to beat Puerto Rico at home and SAFF Cup, we are always expected to win. Puerto Rico, Guam and Myanmar were good results and we are to build on it especially away. Now the real test comes. We have to play Kyrgyzstan who are better than us and we got to play them home and away first. We have to try and win both the games and then we face Macau which isn’t going to be easy. That is why the Myanmar was so important. Right now in my head there is only one thing, to qualify for the Asian Cup. Those three points against Myanmar was so so important,” said Chhetri.
Getting better away
Chhetri, who has scored 53 goals and is India’s highest goal scorer, said that India needs to start winning their away games.
“We always do well at home and have struggled abroad so it was good to win there. Let’s not read too much into the rankings. Winning games is important, winning games away is more important, playing better opponents is more important. We will beat Kyrgyzstan at home or at least try our best to then we will get six points and that is one more step closer to qualification. It is very important to win points at home and to do well against teams that are contenders,” said Chhetri.
The captain hoped that he had a fully fit squad at his disposal during the preparatory camp before they face Kyrgyzstan. “I hope that all the players that are selected for the upcoming camp are all fit and there aren’t any injuries. We missed out on Pranny which was a huge blow. I hope everyone is fit now.”
Aiming to become a regular at the Asian Cup
Talking about his personal growth, Chhetri recollected his time under coach Bob Houghton as his best spell in the national squad and how close they were in breaking into the top-110 in the world.
“We were close under Bob. We won a lot of games than we lost under Bob. That was probably the best team that I had featured in because the 14 to 18 players were sorted and solid. We qualified for the Asian Cup which was huge. That was the best time. Our ranking was 127 and we were almost there,” said the Bengaluru FC striker.
However, then came the plunge, which saw India’s ranking drop.
“Then came a phase were we stepped down and didn’t qualify. The way we should look at it is that if we qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup, then we should have qualified in 2015 and 2019. That should be the barometer,” said Chhetri. “Then you knock at the teams above you. Tournaments like the SAFF Cup and all are important but then you are just here, better among 8 to 10 teams. Qualify for the Asian Cup and you are there. Big teams take notice of you and you are rubbing shoulders with Australia, Bahrain, Japan, among others. How often do we play them? That is why it is important to be there. Right now we have friendlies against Palestine and Lebanon which are good friendlies to play. When you play in big tournaments that is when you know where you are.”
Retirement? Not anytime soon
Chhetri squashed all rumours of retirement when quizzed about calling it a day after the Asian Cup qualifiers, if they make the cut that is. The Bengaluru FC striker, however, said that his statements were taken out of context.
“That was taken out of proportion. They asked me about the Asian Cup and I said that this might be my last chance since it happens every four years. I didn’t say anything about retirement. It can happen in two years, four years, eight years who knows. They day I think there is nothing else to look forward to and I am not contributing to the team then I am gone. I am really competitive in that manner and I am living the dream and don’t want it to go,” said Chhetri.
With India set to host the Under-17 World Cup, Chhetri said that this shouldn’t be treated as a one-off tournament. It should bring in drastic change to Indian football at large.
“The message for everyone should be that this is a start. This tournament when it finishes, shouldn’t be like ‘Chalo ho gaya’. That is the mistake we shouldn’t do. The tournament that we have is a big tournament,” advised the 32-year-old.
He added, “The best in the world are going to compete here. We have to make sure that we prepare the boys and whatever they achieve is all right. As soon as the tournament finishes, that should be taken as a start. It is not like ‘Tournament ho gaya toh khatam karo’. We start, we build and we work more upon it and that is how we go forward.