“Either the team doesn’t go, or we field the best possible team. Because it is the Asian Games.” That is Sunil Chhetri’s point of view about leading a squad of Indian Super League (ISL) irregulars to the continental showpiece event.
“I am not blaming anyone. We can do all that later. I am not taking a dig at anyone. I am going because my club wants me to though (coach) Simon (Grayson) is not happy. And I cannot say no to playing for the country. But with no disrespect to anyone, I do not want to lose face,” said Chhetri, 39, over the phone from Bengaluru on Thursday.
Left to him, Chhetri would not have been in Bengaluru, nearly a week after resuming training after becoming a father. “We should have been in a camp or training in China,” he said. And if that is not possible, India should field a team where players know each other, have trained and played together, he said. Such as the under-23 squad Clifford Miranda took to China for the Asian qualifiers. Or, the squad India head coach Igor Stimac had selected which All India Football Federation (AIFF) released on August 1.
That familiarity would compensate for the lack of training going into Asian Games, he said. “I don’t know when I last played with Sumit Rathi or Narender Gahlot. It will be difficult for them and for me.”
Gahlot and Rathi are among the 18 for the Games where India open against China on September 19. Thirteen of the 22 Stimac had chosen were not in the squad named on Wednesday because they were not released by their clubs.
Chhetri said he understood Mumbai City FC, Mohun Bagan Super Giant and Odisha FC holding back players. They are representing India as well, he said, referring to the clubs’ commitments in the Asian Champions League and AFC Cup both of which will be during Asian Games’ football which runs from September 19 to October 7.
“But the others could have released two players each the head coach wanted. I understand it is not easy for cubs and coaches to do that. But a man can always hope and I am still hoping that we go with the best possible team,” he said.
If none of that happens, Chhetri “would still go and fight, still run like a dog on the pitch.” But it wouldn’t change that this would be the most under-prepared national team he would be part of, he said. One that till Thursday evening had two and not three goalkeepers. Chhetri said he couldn’t remember being in a squad with one goalkeeper less.
India are grouped with China, Bangladesh and Myanmar. China’s under-23 team has played 12 games and they will be joned by three senior players, said Chhetri. “And they will add senior players to that squad and are playing at home.” The top two teams from the six groups and four of the best third teams will qualify for the round of 16.
On August 31, Chhetri and wife Sonam Bhattacharya became parents to a son they have named Dhruv. “I wanted an exception for the King’s Cup because of that but the moment I saw India playing Iraq, I began missing the team. From that squad players like Jeakson (Singh) and (Mahesh) Naorem were supposed to be part of the Asian Games.” But then the list kept changing repeatedly and three days ago, Chhetri said he thought he wasn’t going as well along with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sandesh Jhingan, the other over-24 players named by AIFF.
“I was about to call Clifford and wish hm all the best because I thought he was taking a team,” said Chhetri, now the only over-24 plater in the squad. “And then yesterday my wife said, ‘you are on the list.”