AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: An 11-match unbeaten run in 2023 is not enough for Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri, who is further looking forward to playing against tough international matches in September and October.
The Blue Tigers, after completing a treble of titles in 2023, winning the Hero Tri-Nation Cup, Hero Intercontinental Cup, and the Bangabandhu SAFF Championship, will be looking forward to participation in the King’s Cup in Thailand in September, and the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia in October, as part of their preparation for the AFC Asian Cup.
India (FIFA Ranking 100) have been drawn in Group B of the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2023, where they will face the likes of Australia (22), Uzbekistan (74), and Syria (94).
“When you start winning games, it adds to your confidence. The good part is that when we meet teams like Iraq (King’s Cup), we get to gauge ourselves and know where we stand against teams of a certain standard,” said Chhetri. “We’ve already played well against Lebanon and Kuwait, so we know where we stand against Syria, who are probably a notch higher, but are of a similar quality.”
He further went on to state that the Blue Tigers need to face one of the top teams in Asia to gauge themselves for their clash against Australia.
“(Playing) Iraq will tell us what we need to do against Uzbekistan, and then, maybe closer to the Asian Cup, we need to play one of the top teams in Asia, like Iran, Japan, or the Korea Republic, in order for us to be better prepared for Australia,” he said.
While the AFC Asian Cup is set to take place in Qatar in January 2024, Chhetri is not one to look too far ahead into the future.
“I’m not sure what my expectations are exactly for the future, and that’s the way I am. I only keep short-term targets,” he said. “I don’t know about targets for the Asian Cup or the World Cup Qualifiers, but we are going to take things on a short-term basis and keep fighting. This is what I’ve been telling the whole team.”
The Blue Tigers’ SAFF Championship victory after a nerve-wracking penalty shootout against Kuwait in the final, which India won 5-4. That win saw praise being showered on them from all walks of life. However, Chhetri urged his boys to keep their heads down and carry on.
“This limelight that we’re getting we all like it, but we cannot get ahead of ourselves,” said Chhetri. “There is an invisible pressure on everyone, and we like it, we enjoy it. It’s not just us players or coaches, but everyone – AIFF, the Government, the clubs, and the corporate houses. Even the media as well. Everyone is under an invisible pressure when we need to perform.”
The Blue Tigers have been in camp for around two months, beginning in May, weeks before the Hero Intercontinental Cup, something that has set the process for their success. For Chhetri and Co, it has been two months of toil after the end of a long season.
“It was quite a tedious camp for us, and that’s why you saw everyone so happy after we won the SAFF Championship. We had all been together and worked so hard for more than 50 days. What made it more difficult was that this came at the end of a long season,” he said. “We played the Hero ISL, then the Tri-Nation, then the Super Cup, and then we were back in the National Camp. Some even played in the AFC Competitions for their respective clubs. But the results of that long camp were there for all to see.”
The 38-year-old feels that it is essential for a team like India to have longer camps ahead of crucial tournaments, in order for the players to gel well with each other.
“For a team like ours, especially for the Asian Cup, where we know we will face the likes of Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria, longer camps would always be helpful. When the boys play at the Hero ISL, they are playing at a certain level. But let’s be honest, when we meet Australia, we would meet competition that is a couple of levels higher, if not more,” said Chhetri. “That’s the reason why when we come together and train, we know that it helps a bit. That is the reason why we need longer camps, and to play 2-3 friendlies against some of the top teams in Asia.”