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Want India to be among the top-10 Asian teams, says Sunil Chhetri

The talismanic Indian footballer believes that the national team will find the ideal No.9 to replace him as there is no dearth of talent.
Last Updated : 17 May 2024, 15:56 IST
Last Updated : 17 May 2024, 15:56 IST

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Bengaluru: Indian footballing icon Sunil Chhetri, who announced on Thursday that he would retire from international football after India's 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Kuwait on June 6, touched upon the future of the Indian national team, his plans after retirement and on how he plans to serve the Blue Tigers in the future during a virtual interaction with the media on Friday. Excerpts.

How do you see the future of Indian football?

Very bright. I am really optimistic. A lot of the attacking players are doing really well, and I am pretty sure that with the talent that we have and the hunger that we have, we will get the ideal centre forward.

Any hollow feelings about missing 100 international goals?

No I don't. When I started, I never thought that I would score these many goals. At no point did I dream of scoring 100. I am happy that I scored 94 times for the country. 

How long were you thinking about retirement?

Every day I was fighting within myself and trying to analyse stuff. I was trying to think more holistically. I am at peace now and I think I took the right decision. 

What do you hope your legacy will be?

A very good looking and hard-working player. There are lot of attributes needed for a player to do well, but one thing I want to leave behind is that you've got to work really hard.

Did you achieve all the goals you set out as a professional footballer?

I did not set any long-term goals. As and when I went through, we had goals like qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup. Right now it is to go to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers. If I can see it with me being in the team, that would be amazing. If you see the longer graph from the last 10 years, slowly and steadily we are growing towards where we want to be. We want to be one of the top 10 teams in Asia and stay there. We want to rub our shoulders with the best in Asia. That is a realistic target.

Your plans after international retirement?

June 6 is when I retire, June 7 I will spend a lot of time crying. From June 8, I will relax and take an off. There was a 10-day off after my last ISL game (vs Mohun Bagan Super Giant, Apr 11) but I got chickenpox and my wife and kid were annoyed with me. From June 8 I will take a break and stay with my family, and from July first week we start the pre-season with Bengaluru FC. 

When did it strike you that it is time to retire?

10-15 days post the Afghanistan game. That is when I started thinking on what our next goals are. It is of prime importance to me that I bring value to the team. It wasn't because of the physical aspect, I feel really fit. Running, chasing, defending, the physical part is not too difficult. I have done better as I aged, but it is the mental part. It started with that instinct, and then started thinking of a lot of things.

In what capacity will you be interested in serving Indian football in the future?

One or two years maximum I am there with Bengaluru FC. I don't know when will I end that journey. I want to take a sabbatical after that and I don't want to jump into anything. I really want to bring some value, so I will look within myself and see what I am good at, what I bring to the table. Before that, it is going to be relaxing with my family, who have sacrificed a lot. 

Discussion with Stimac...

When I went to (Igor) Stimac and told him about my retirement decision, he understood it. He did not stop me. He knows how badly I want to play football. We had a nice short chat and he said 'all right let us make sure that we come together and we ensure that we win the (Kuwait) game'." He knows that we have built a team which is rightly poised. Every position has two or three players who are doing well. So, we will be fine.

Plans to venture into coaching

As for now, no. But I am nearing 40, I have learnt to never say never. When I take the sabbatical I probably would want to do the coaching license just to be more knowledgeable. But not with the thought of becoming a coach. Coaching is not in the higher ranks of my agenda, but I will keep doing courses as I love to learn.

Did you chat with Kohli before taking the decision?

“I did talk to Virat Kohli before my retirement decision, he is very close to me and we speak constantly. We both understand such retirement decisions exactly the way they are. We get the ups and downs of sports, this part of retirement, and we do understand that the other person would understand. I wish him all the best for 18th.”

Favourite goal

It is difficult, but the one goal that I can think of is the goal against Kyrgyzstan in Bengaluru when we had to qualify for the Asia Cup. To score that goal off a counter-attack and Jeje (Lalpekhlua)'s pass was outstanding. 

Would you have loved to stay longer in Europe before returning to India in 2012?

When I went there I was 24-25. I wouldn't have come back if I was 17 and purely because the level that I was training everyday was outstanding. I was in one of the best clubs (Sporting Club Portugal) as far as talent management and nourishing talent was concerned. The set up there is amazing, and I enjoyed training. But not playing and not getting enough game-time was hampering me. Even though I felt good physically and was upbeat, getting 15-20 minutes to play wasn't good for my morale. That is the reason why I came back. I had a four-year deal with them and if I was 16-17, I would have closed my eyes and stayed. Because I know for a fact that I was becoming a better player every day at a rapid pace. It is not a regret call, I have got more than what I dreamt.

How important it is for Indian players to play abroad?

It is not hugely important, but if it happens, it is good. It should happen organically, and it will happen. Even the league is getting better. All the players who do well at an early age and break into the system will venture out. The more younger we identify talent, the quicker they do in the domestic circuit and fly away. That is the common blueprint for top Asian teams.

What should young Indian strikers do to get more chances?

What I tell the players is you have got to step up. I know it is not easy because I know every club has one or two foreigners already and clubs spend a lot of money on them. But you must beat that mentality and perform. So my appeal to them is forget things that you can't control and talk to the coach as you have shown that you can do it. Go and ask, and compete. Look at (Lallianzuala) Chhangte, 10 goals in two seasons back to back. Not that the players can't do it, I just want a change in their mentality. You have to want it badly, and it depends on the dynamics and you cannot ask too much from the club. Scoring goals is the best thing. 

What style of football should the national team play?

I personally like possession football. How the national team should play completely depends on the coach. Are we capable of doing that? Very much. 

If you give enough time and information, these boys, the young ones, are smart enough, sensible enough and hungry enough to adapt. It takes time, what is important is that the players must be in sync with the coach's philosophy. This is when the team will succeed.

Future plans in the ISL

To not finish ninth (on the table). Everyone is hurting at Bengaluru FC. Right from our boss to the ball boy, it has done harm to our health, our mental health and our ego. Of course, there is nobody to blame but ourselves. We want to come back. July 1, from day one, we will begin training and the target is to start from day one. 

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Published 17 May 2024, 15:56 IST

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