Father figure Sunil Chhetri is now a calmer and happier No 11

DOHA,QATAR: June 12, 2005, was when a certain 20-year-old striker stepped onto the pitch in Quetta, Pakistan, to clock his first international game for the Blue Tigers. 

Nineteen years, 145 international matches, and 93 goals later, a 39-year-old Sunil Chhetri is seen going through a daily transformation, as he, along with the Blue Tigers, prepare for the upcoming AFC Asian Cup 2023, in Doha, Qatar. For it is when the India captain takes to the pitch, that he transfigures himself into an 18-year-old playing for the love of the beautiful game.

“That’s the way I want to play, whatever time I have left with the National Team,” said a smiling Chhetri to AIFF. “I had a chat with my wife about the Asian Cup and the World Cup Qualifiers against Afghanistan later, and it seemed to her that I was taking too much pressure with these matches.

“She told me to just go out there and enjoy. You start playing football because you love it. When we used to play the small sided games as kids, it was for the enjoyment of the game. But when you become pro, you get bogged down by all the noise and expectations, and the wins and the losses. Sometimes we tend to forget why we started it all. The essence of football is lost,” he said.

“It’s all about the mindset of going out there and enjoying it. Of course, you still have to maintain discipline, and do all the things that you have to do around football, you can’t forget your duties, but at the end of the day, once you go out there, you should enjoy what you’re doing,” said Chhetri.

It’s been just over a week that the Blue Tigers arrived in Doha ahead of the Asian Cup, where they have been drawn in Group B, alongside Australia (January 13), Uzbekistan (January 18), and Syria (January 23).

Chhetri is now on the brink of playing his third AFC Asian Cup, the other two editions coming in 2011 and 2019, and the India captain has a special feeling for the tournament.

“It’s a massive tournament for us, purely because we get to rub shoulders with the best in Asia. Teams like Australia and Uzbekistan are probably of the World Cup level, so you can test yourself against them,” he said. 

“What is sure is that we have improved in the last seven-eight years. but then you play them and you see how far you are, and how the tempo of the game is. It’s just important to play your best, and generally it’s a good marker for the nation to test where we are.

“So far, we’ve worked pretty hard over the last week, a lot of us got better in terms of fitness, and some have recovered from the little niggles they were carrying. Everyone seems focussed, which has to be a given at this stage. But one thing is that the camaraderie between the boys is absolutely amazing,” he said.

The 2023 edition of the AFC Asian Cup is much akin to the 2011 edition, where India began their campaign against Australia (0-4). However, Chhetri feels that the Blue Tigers are better prepared now.

“We did not have much knowledge of the Australian team back then. Not when compared to the minute details we have now. We’ve watched their friendlies against Palestine and Bahrain, we know which leagues their players are in, and individual clips on them,” explained Chhetri. “With this familiarity, the fear factor goes out. I must admit, of course, that they are extremely good. They’re a couple of levels above than what we play in the ISL, but at least we know what we’re up against.”

They key, believes the India captain, is not to ponder too far ahead. “We will take it one game at a time and try to give a good account of ourselves. We will prepare as much as possible, gather as much knowledge as we possibly can, and then act according to that,” he said.

A ‘happier’ no. 11

While Chhetri has scored four goals in his six matches at the AFC Asian Cup, the 2023 edition will be an altogether different one for him. Not only is the India no. 11 older and wiser, but he also became a father last year.

That many not have changed his perspective on football, but it certainly has changed his outlook on life.

“I’m so much happier and calmer now. It’s like I’ve had a different responsibility and purpose ever since I became a father, it’s something that I can’t explain,” he said.“I’m so fortunate that my wife is doing all the heavy lifting so I can come here and train, play, and get my eight hours of sleep,” said the Blue Tigers captain. 

“A lot of people who became fathers before I did, had told me about it, but I never understood it back then. But I am certainly much calmer, much cleaner and much happier in life now.”

Also Read: Blue Tigers hungrier than ever before, says Gurpreet

Also Read: Battle-hardened Nikhil Poojary fights ‘inner demons’ for Asian Cup opportunity

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