Football - Chettri
Getting into groove: Indian football team is currently undergoing a preparation camp in Kolkata. Sunil Chettri (second right), along with the team, is all ears to coach Igor Stimac. Image Credit: AIFF

Kolkata: Sunil Chettri, the elder statesman of Indian football, wants the crowd to come in and support them when the ‘Blue Tigers’ attempt to cross the final hurdle and qualify for the Asian Cup 2023, the football showpiece of the continent. They will be opening their campaign in the final round of the Qualifiers against Cambodia on June 8 at Salt Lake Stadium, to be followed by matches against Afghanistan and Hong Kong.

Returning to Kolkata is always a sort of homecoming for the 37-year-old Chettri, who had been the biggest brand ambassador for Indian football after Baichung Bhutia. It’s in this football city that he started his journey as a callow 16-year-old some two decades back in club football to grow up as one of the most recognisable names in Asian football - and now lies jointly in fifth position with the iconic Lionel Messi in terms of scoring international goals with 80 strikes. A list, which not surprisingly, is topped by Cristiano Ronaldo with 115 goals at the moment.

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No mean feat this, given the fact that India is now 106 in Fifa rankings and despite them showing the odd bright sparks, has not been able to hold their own - often flattering to deceive in international competitions. ‘‘If we want to make our mark at the Asian level, then we have to qualify for the Asian Cup finals over and over again. In the last edition, we started off really well in the UAE till we messed the opportunity to qualify for the knockout stages in 2019 and another opportunity has presented itself now,’’ the Indian captain said during an interaction with selected media at the team hotel on Friday.

‘‘It’s in this context that this tournament is extremely important to us and I would like to appeal to the football-crazy crowd here to turn up at the venue. Speaking from experience (he now leads Bengaluru FC which plays their away games of Indian Super League in Kolkata) and I know the pressure the crowd can create on the visiting teams,’’ said Chettri, who has his extended family here as he is married to the daughter of Subrata Bhattacharya, a legendary central defender of Indian football in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The last time Chettri appealed to the crowd to turn up at the stadium on social media in 2018, when India were playing Inter continental Cup in Mumbai, had struck a chord and the stadium had actually filled up. Virat Kohli, a good friend of Chettri, had joined in the issue as the footballer sent an emotional message where he said: “I mean, it is not fun to criticise or abuse on the internet. Come to the stadium. Do it on our face. Scream at us, shout at us, abuse us. Who knows, one day it might change you guys or you might start a change for us.”

Answering to a query, Chettri readily agrees that the only way to change the perception about his team is to produce results. ‘‘The problem has been our lack of consistency. If we managed to create a huge impact with a goalless draw against Asian champions Qatar in the World Cup Qualifiers in 2019, it’s the same team which produced a lacklustre performance against Bangladesh (1-1) here in the very next game. There is a qualitative change in the sense that these boys are not afraid, but we certainly need to work on closing out matches,’’ he said.

Asked if he was apprehensive that India’s doors for the Asian Cup Qualifiers would be closed with the prospect of a Fifa ban on India looming large recently till the High Court appointed a Committee of Administrators (CoA), a candid Chettri agreed. ‘‘Yes, I was skeptical. At this stage of my career, I treat every game as my last one. If we manage to qualify, the team will be in the finals even if I am not there,’’ said Chettri, referring to the fact the Asian Cup 2023 may now well be pushed back in 2024 after China pulled out as hosts due to resurgence to Covid cases there.

This means a wait of another one and-a-half years, a long time even for a supremely fit athlete like Chettri...