Sunil Chhetri Image Credit: PTI

Dubai: It’s not easy to be in Sunil Chhetri’s shoes. As the talismanic footballer for the country, which languishes in 97th spot in Fifa rankings, the burden of expectations had been always huge on him ever since Baichung Bhutia had walked away into the sunset.

Come their upcoming campaign in the Asian Cup, Chhetri may not be wearing the captain’s armband anymore (ask coach Stephen Constantine about it), but the man with a scoring feat equal to that of Lionel Messi chose to brush aside any talk about it. “I am in the national team to do my duty,” Chhetri said.

Earlier this year, Chhetri scored his 65th international goal in 103 appearances — a tally which puts him as the second highest scorer of international goals with the Argentine genius, behind Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. Speaking to Gulf News in an exclusive interview, Chhetri was unaffected by all the fuss the feat generated back home. “As far as my records go, I cannot brag too much as there is so much of difference between me and Messi and Ronaldo. There is no comparison really. I am big fan of both and would love to meet them one day. But until then I am merely happy to work hard and score as many goals as possible to see India flying high,” the 34-year-old said.

Sunil Chhetri poses with his wife Sonam Bhattacharya after their wedding celebration. Image Credit: Courtesy: Twitter

While this will be certainly his last hurrah at the continental showpiece, Chhetri sees the Asian Cup as his “second chance” after a disastrous campaign in Doha in 2011. He was in the team that qualified for that edition after a gap of 27 years following their triumph at the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup. It was there that Chhetri endured the stark reality of Indian football as they lost all three Group C games — 4-0 against Australia, 5-2 against Bahrain and 4-1 against South Korea.

Chhetri wants to ensure the lessons wouldn’t be forgotten as he tirelessly went about doing everything possible to spark a change in the thought process among the country’s masses. India missed out on the next two editions of the tournament, but eventually, earned the ticket to the UAE. “Not many get a second chance, but I have a second try to do something special for my country in this tournament in the UAE,” he said.

“We are in the competition because we deserve to be there. All of us have worked hard to get there. It has never been an easy ride, but now that we get ready to travel for another Asian Cup I can only promise you that all of us will be at our best form to turn for our country. It is an absolute privilege and honour to be part of this team.”

India begin their Group A campaign against Thailand at Abu Dhabi’s Al Nahyan Stadium at 5.30pm on January 6. Their next match will be against the hosts at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi at 8pm on January 10, before they travel to Sharjah for their final group match against Bahrain at 8pm on January 14.

“There is no easy match and no easy team in such a competition,” Chhetri added. “No one will be coming for a picnic or for shopping to the UAE. This is serious business and we will give our best for our team and our country.”

India will be participating in the prestigious event only for the fourth time since its inception in 1956. The Men in Blue qualified for the first time in 1964 — coming up with their best finish of being runners-up to hosts Israel. They appeared again in 1984 in Singapore and then in 2011 in Qatar.

India and Chhetri’s recent form

India held China to a goalless draw in October, 2018 but without injured star striker Sunil Chhetri, they went down by a solitary goal against Jordan in Amman in their next friendly. India played out a goalless draw against the 83rd-ranked Oman in Abu Dhabi in their final preparatory match on Thursday.

Chhetri has been struggling with an ankle injury recently but the striker feels he has it under control now, especially after the Indian Super League (ISL) was suspended in order to allow the national team to prepare for UAE extravaganza. “This short break will do all of us good. We need to be prepared and ready to fire, both mentally and physically,” Chhetri said.

“My one prayer going into these final few days is that all of our squad should be injury free as that would give us the right platform to perform at the highest level.”

Profile: Sunil Chhetri

Name: Sunil Chhetri
Date of birth: August 3, 1984
Place of birth: Secunderabad
Height: 5.7ft
Playing position: Winger/Striker
Jersey No.: 11
Goals: 65 in 103 matches
Clubs: Mohun Bagan, JCT, East Bengal, Dempo, Sporting CB (Lisbon, Portugal), Churchill Brothers, Bengaluru