Senior National Team
Chhangte craving to 'assist' Chhetri to turn the Kuwait tie a memorable one  
30 May 2024

Akhil Rawat
AIFF Media Team

KOLKATA: When the 18-year-old Lallianzuala Chhangte announced himself on the international stage in style with a brace against Nepal in the 2015 SAFF Championship, it was the start of something special.

"The first time I got called up for the national team, it was special," the winger remembered. "That is one of the days that I will always remember."

"The first goal I scored for India was special. Outside the box. Beating one player. That was a very beautiful goal."

The road wouldn't be smooth after that, but the Mizo flash's hunger and determination helped traverse everything. Fast forward to 2024, Chhangte now has the AIFF Player of the Year and ISL Hero of the League awards, alongside two SAFF titles, a Tri-Nation Series, an Intercontinental Cup and the ISL Shield and Cup.

"I think it's been an interesting journey so far. I have had my ups and downs. After I scored those goals against Nepal, maybe I wasn't performing consistently enough. Maybe I wasn't mature enough. I was on and off with the national team," he said.

"So, I think I've learned a lot as a player and as a human being because it's a completely different responsibility once you are with the national team. In the ISL, you have foreigners who can help you but in the national team, you have to stand by yourself and rely on your ability much more than the club."

So what has been the difference between the teenage Chhangte and the mature character who has cropped up now? No longer an emerging star, but a senior figure everyone looks up to. He has been one of the finest performing Indians in the last few years.

"I think I've been more mature in terms of decision-making, in terms of working and playing alongside my teammates. This is still just the start of the journey that I'm bound to take. I think there is a lot of responsibility to take. It's more about being an example for my teammates, especially for younger kids. You can perform, you can have a good match. But without your teammates, you are nothing. So for me, it's all about teamwork and getting along with my teammates. That's what I'm trying to do daily.

"Outside football, I'm just trying to be a good example like some of our senior players. I've been looking up to them since joining the national team in 2015. They lead by example," Chhangte said.

There's obviously no bigger example than Chhetri. Chhangte listed the three biggest influences of the Indian captain in his career.

"I have huge respect for Sunil bhai because of first -how he looks after himself, secondly - his work ethic, and third -his humility. When I first joined the camp back in 2015, he welcomed me and when I came onto the pitch, he called me and told me this - do your best, enjoy the game, play it simple and do whatever you want. That stayed with me since then.

"Being him is not easy. And I really respect the way he carries the national team. The time that I enjoy the most with him is sitting together in the sauna or the steam bath, and even in the jacuzzi, because I have a lot of questions to ask him.

Having shared the pitch with Chhetri for almost nine years, it's been an honour, to say the least, for Chhangte. Whether it was the 2015 SAFF win in Thiruvananthapuram, or the 2023 Intercontinental Cup and SAFF titles, Chhetri and Chhangte had been instrumental for the Blue Tigers. And now, with Chhetri on the verge of hanging his boots after a 19-year career, Chhangte feels winning against Kuwait and making the third round of the World Cup Qualifiers will be the best way to honour the legend.

Every time I think about the Kuwait game, I feel this is a chance to make history. That motivates me a lot and sometimes I even get a bit emotional as well because it's really important to go to the next round.

"Apart from that, with this game, we can honour Chhetri bhai as well because he deserves to win this. But he can't do it alone. He can't score a goal by himself all the time. He can't give an assist by himself all the time. Someone has to step up. So I hope and I believe that it would be me and my other teammates as well," wished Chhangte.

The match between India and Kuwait will be broadcast on Sports 18 1, Sports 18 1 HD, Sports 18 3, and streamed live on JioCinema, on June 6, 2024, at 19:00 IST.

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