India’s Sunil Chhetri at the Xiaoshan Sports Centre Stadium after the 1-1 draw v Myanmar yesterday. Pic/Ashwin Ferro
India football captain Sunil Chhetri, 39, was in the mood to execute some fierce volleys, albeit of the verbal nature, after his team qualified for the knockout stage against all odds with a 1-1 draw against Myanmar in their last league match at the Xiaoshan Sports Centre Stadium on Sunday night. India lost to China 1-5 in the opener before beating Bangladesh 1-0.
The Indian men's team were initially not picked for this Asiad after they didn't meet the Sports Ministry's ranking criteria. However, after some heavy lobbying things changed, but then some of the Indian Super League clubs refused to release their players citing ISL and AFC Champions League commitments. So, an inexperienced team was picked with Chhetri named skipper and just two other senior players, Sandesh Jhinghan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh for company.
"It has been difficult. I don't want to start about the coach not getting his full side or whatever but there's been no preparation. This team has never played together, we haven't trained. Three games in five days hasn't been easy. There is no masseur, just six or seven support staff. I'm not being a crybaby, but this is what it is," Chhetri said moments after the Myanmar game.
The Indian football team qualified for the Round of 16 for the first time since 2010. Interestingly, it is Chhetri who dragged Jhingan into this team. "I'm guilty of secretly forcing Sandesh into this team because I realised that it was only me and lot of young kids. There was a day when I thought I'm not going for this tournament. It was announced that Sandesh, Gurpreet and myself are not going. Then, two days before the team had to fly, I was told I'm going. When I asked about the team, I was told they've announced it and then another team was announced, so I gave up. I thought about getting the other [senior] lads in but I could only fish one," added Chhetri, his frustration now breaking into a smile.
The legendary skipper and striker however, has a positive message for the confused Indian football fan who doesn't know what to expect from this team. "As a fan, I'm one of you. I don't know what to expect, but I assure you that the boys are working hard. We might not look organised, we might not look fluid but don't feel disheartened. The good thing is that we have qualified and the message is clear: just take one day at a time, make sure you recuperate and be as fit as possible for the next part. We'll fight till the end."