Intercontinental Cup Football: Chhetri eyes landmark as India face Kenya

Mumbai: The Indian players will aim to gift their skipper Sunil Chhetri a memorable 100th international match when they face Kenya in an Intercontinental Cup tie here on Monday.

India sit pretty at the top of the four-team table after their facile 5-0 victory over Chinese Taipei in the opening match of the football tournament. Kenya are second thanks to their 2-1 win over New Zealand on Saturday.

“I had a dream but never dreamt of playing 100 international matches. This is unbelievable,” Chhetri said prior to India’s practice session at the Mumbai Football Arena here on Sunday.

“Honestly, I never think much about milestones. It was only when I was having a chat with my mom the other night that she became a bit emotional. How big it was for her made me realise how big the occasion is,” he added.

Chhetri is the second Indian after former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia to achieve the feat. Bhutia, who represented the country from 1995 to 2011, played 104 international matches, scoring 40 goals.

“I need to thank my parents, friends, family, all my coaches, players, fans, media for their support in my journey in being able to be the second person in history to play 100 international matches for my country. It feels special,” Chhetri said.

“I just feel I will be able to keep my emotions under control, play the game as we should, stick to the plan and try to win the game for the country.”

Referring to his ‘mentor’ Bhutia’s accolades for Chhetri evolving as a player, the ‘disciple’ said that “as players grow older they start filtering stuff.”

“Once you grow older and you play more, you understand what’s not good for you rather than what works for you. As you grow older you tend to start filtering stuff which is not needed and which is not important for you. That’s what is learnt. So I do the things which work for me. It’s monotonous but I hope it continues,” he said.

“I still remember my first match for India. We were in Pakistan and Nabi-da (Syed Rahim Nabi) and me were the rookies. We were kind of chilling knowing that we may not be fielded. But Sukhi-sir (Sukhwinder Singh) made both of us start the game. I scored a goal and in my euphoria I ran to the Pakistani fans and started to celebrate,” he smiled.

Chhetri asserted that the Indians will go all out to ensure a victory against Kenya. The Indian forward line was impressive against Chinese Taipei, but the Kenyans have a stronger defence and should be much tougher to score against.

“As a player you are lucky if you get tougher games and the toughest one will be against Kenya. The matches coming up the next day are always the toughest. The Asian Cup in UAE will also be very tough,” he said.

“As a player I have been in many a tough match. The games against South Korea, Australia and Bahrain in the 2011 Asian Cup were so tough. We played Japan in Bengaluru and that was tough too,” he recollected.

“Sometimes I feel the importance of the match makes it tougher. The matches against Myanmar (away in Yangon) and the home match against Kyrgyz Republic were tough in our road to qualification for the UAE Asian Cup.”

Chhetri also informed that he enjoys the competition against the youngsters in his quest to get fitter and better.

“I feel good when I speak with Udanta (Singh) and sprint with him. I feel good when I try to get past Sandesh (Jhingan). I feel good when I try to score against the big wall (Gurpreet Singh Sandhu). All of them are true professionals,” he said.

“The desire in the present squad makes it special. The camaraderie is great and there is not a single ego clash within. There’s an ardent desire to improve and its really good to lead this bunch of players. We have the desire and the talent. We need to keep working hard,” he added.