As Sunil Chhetri scored the goals that gave Indian football team a much-needed win over Bangladesh in the Fifa World Cup qualifiers, the sentiment that followed after the immediate rush of joy and relief was an uncomfortable one.
Who after Chhetri? It’s a question that would have gone through the minds of several Indian football fans who would’ve been grateful to their captain for yet another rescue act. But they’ll know deep down that it won’t last forever.
There will be the day Chhetri will hang up his boots to leave a huge void in the team. Adding to the fans’ anxiety will be the lack of a potential successor.
When the great IM Vijayan retired, Bhaichung Bhutia was ready to take over the mantle, when Bhutia called it a day, Chhetri was already a budding star. Although there isn’t anything to suggest that the Indian captain will end his career in the immediate future, his age means the inevitable is not too far ahead and as it stands there is no candidate strong enough to fill his boots.
But for Chhetri, the man who took his international goal tally to 74, there is no reason to worry.
“Where I see Indian football in the coming 10-15 years, there will be many players who are going to score goals,” Chhetri told reporters during an online interaction on Wednesday.
“Many people ask me what will be there after you? I say there will be better players and that is how evolution works. You have to believe that, if you keep getting players like me, we will be where we are, but where I want to see my country is way above so there will be better players than me. It takes time, my work is till the time I am here, I give my best,” added the Indian captain without naming any players he thinks have the potential to match his success.
He has pinned his hopes on the new 3+1 AFC rule that will be implemented in the Indian Super League from the upcoming season where more Indian players would get playing opportunities.
“I think the 3+1 rule, will certainly help. It’s a process and I have faith in it that it will produce good attacking Indian players in the coming years,” he said.
The 36-year-old clarified that he has not set any date or time period for his retirement and that he’ll continue to play till he enjoys the game.
“I’m not thinking about hanging up my boots. I’m not arrogant here. I am enjoying my football. I have never been fitter than now. I am 36 but the zeal and hunger of playing for the country are still there,” Chhetri said.
For him, the key to his longevity is his renewed fitness levels, something he feels is an absolute must in today’s times.
“In modern football, you can’t have players who can’t run. So I take my fitness very seriously. I may stop scoring goals but there will never be a time when I’m unfit,” the Indian captain said.
“And it’s not just me. I see players like Sandesh (Jhingan), Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu) and Rowllin (Borges) who are very particular about what you eat. They ensure that all youngsters follow it as well and it’s great to see. Earlier it was only me but it’s now a bit of a culture,” he added.
A lot of youngsters have joined the team under Igor Stimac. The transitional phase has led to inconsistent performances not just in terms of results but also with respect to the style of play.
Chhetri though was full of praise for coach Stimac who he felt has been brave in giving opportunities to young players.
“The credit must go to the coach for giving so many opportunities to different players. Now no one can complain that the coach didn’t give them a fair chance,” he said.
“However, it’s not that the coach doesn’t want a settled team. He’s been looking to narrow down to a group of 14 players that he will keep faith in but the situation has been tough,” Chhetri said.
The Bengaluru FC forward though also addressed the concerns of the fans who would like the team to play a more possession-based system. India under Stimac have tried to implement a similar style of play but stronger opponents and lack of proper camps have meant they haven’t been able to do so effectively.
“I have been told that there has been a backlash about us not passing enough, and I am one of those fans who have the same feeling. I also want to see my team passing more,” he said.
“A lot of players also want that, but it will take time. We have players who are comfortable with the ball, you need to play a lot more matches and it will come. The coaching is pretty simplified, the only issue is you need a little bit of training, you need a little more of matches,” he added.
Apart from Chhetri’s goals, there wasn’t much to cheer about against Bangladesh and Chhetri will hope for a better showing in the game against Afghanistan on June 15.
A victory for India will see them finish third in their World Cup qualifying group earning them a place in the third round of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, an improvement over the fifth-place finish last time out.
But Chhetri said whatever the result of India’s final game, he will look back at the campaign with mixed feelings.
“I won’t say it was a successful campaign even if we beat Afghanistan as I will remember what we did against Bangladesh in Kolkata and against Afghanistan away which was not good,” said Chhetri.
“We had good games against Qatar away and Oman at home which were some of our best performances in recent years. So the feeling in the camp is that we have been hot and cold and that is something the group is looking to correct in the future,” he added.
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