On the threshold of history, Anirudh Thapa vows to take India to Round 3

BHUBANESWAR: Not many players can boast a half-century of caps for the national team before turning 26. Anirudh Thapa can. At 57, the central midfielder has the third-highest appearances for India among the current players in the Blue Tigers camp behind Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

Thapa’s international career stretches almost seven years now. From the 19-year-old youngster who tiptoed into the Mumbai Football Arena pitch against Saint Kitts and Nevis to the 26-year-old midfield machine gearing up for one of the biggest matches of his career against Kuwait in just over a week. He spoke to the-aiff.com in Bhubaneswar where the Blue Tigers are camping ahead of travelling to Kolkata.

“Seven years with the national team have been fantastic. I’ve played with some great players in the past and now also as players keep coming. I’m still learning a lot from my teammates and playing international matches for my country. I was fortunate enough to continue playing without missing any camps in those seven years,” said Thapa.

And that consistency is a big achievement on its own. It answers Thapa’s vast international experience at such a young age. Not just maintaining his high level as a midfielder but also staying largely injury-free.

“It’s an absolute honour to wear the national team jersey. It was always a dream to play for India. Whenever I play for the jersey, I give my best. I don’t really have a target for how long or how many games I’ll play. Every day and every game for India is a proud moment for me,” he added.

Asked to zero in on his favourite moment in these seven years, Thapa didn’t even have to think. “It was in the AFC Asian Cup in 2019 when we beat Thailand 4-1 (India’s first win in the tournament in 55 years) and I was one of the scorers. It was my first goal for the national team.”

When you have a legendary figure like Sunil Chhetri in the national camp, it is always a big source of motivation for youngsters breaking into the team. Thapa believes he has been lucky enough to share seven years – an envious amount of time – with Chhetri.

“Over the past seven years, whenever I’ve been in the national camp, he’s been the one everyone looks up to. He is an example-setter. He used to guide us through everything, tell us new things like how to stay fit, and what to do in your daily life. He has been a mentor for all,” said Thapa.

On the pitch, Thapa and Chhetri’s chemistry is no secret. Four of Chhetri’s 94 goals have been assisted by the boots of Thapa. Twice at the 2018 Intercontinental Cup (against Chinese Taipei and Kenya), once against Nepal in a 2021 friendly and most recently against Kuwait in the SAFF Championship group stage – a stunning volley from an inch-perfect corner.

Thapa also shared a bit about their relationship outside the football pitch.

“Yeah, we do talk outside football. About a lot of things. We discuss our holidays and vacations. In the national camp too, after our meals in the dining room, we sit and chat for a while, sharing laughter. Sharing the dressing room with him has been great.”

Adding a message for Chhetri, Thapa said, “Although Sunil bhai knows everything about football and life and has been the one always guiding us, my message to him would be that now is the time you can eat what you want to, you can enjoy with your son in your free time. And our plan to go on a vacation together is still on.”

But for now, all eyes are only on June 6 and the encounter against Kuwait. For Thapa, the occasion cannot be more special. A must-win match for India’s third-round hopes in a place close to his heart, the Salt Lake Stadium, where he lifted the ISL Shield with Mohun Bagan SG a month ago. All of that, with an added emotion of bidding adieu to Chhetri.

“It is an important match for all of us, and especially for Sunil bhai. We need to make sure that we qualify for the third round because that would be huge for Indian football and the fans. We’re playing at the Salt Lake and the stadium will be fully packed. We all know how crazy the fans are and how much they love football there. We will give our best for the nation. We need to be at our best to get those three points,” said Thapa.

Also read: U17 Football Tournament’s National Finals kickstarts from June 1

Also read: Pyramid Sports Development League – Bengaluru FC, Bangalore Super Strikers FC, and The Football People Academy secure the League Shield

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