MUMBAI: Sunil Chhetri may be second most prolific international goalscorer among active players behind only Cristiano Ronaldo but the India captain has more modest aspirations for his country.
The forward, who turned 35 on Saturday and has notched 71 goals in 111 internationals, only wants to get India into the top echelons of Asian football before he finally retires.
“I don’t think I will ever be content. I am somebody who is always hungry,” Chhetri told Reuters in an interview.
“Whenever I do decide to hang (up) the boots or whenever I am forced to hang (up) my boots, I just want that my country is in the first 10 (in Asia) and stays there.
“One thing that I really, really want is that India believes, and we all at least aspire, to be in the first 10.”
India’s obsession with and success on the cricket pitch has left it a massive underachiever on the football field and the national side is 103rd in the FIFA rankings, 18th among Asian nations.
The path to where many believe India should be in the world rankings is long and hard but Chhetri believes the first step would be regular meetings with the likes of Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia.
“If we are in the first 10, you are giving yourself a realistic chance to play against the best in Asia and then you always have the answer to how much you have to achieve more,” said Chhetri.
“It is really paramount for us to work hard, for all of us together … and try and achieve that target as soon as possible.”
The usual sign of progress for a developing football nation is a place at the World Cup finals, something that India has never come close to achieving.
No less than Virat Kohli, who by his status as India cricket luminary enjoys a much higher profile than Chhetri, said last week he thought his “inspirational” fellow national team captain deserved to play at the quadrennial showpiece event.
WORK CUT OUT
Realistically, Chhetri’s final chance of that would begin next month in the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup where India have been clubbed with Asian champions Qatar, Oman, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in Group E.
Even if Qatar have already qualified as World Cup hosts, India will still have their work cut out to progress to the third round of qualifying as one of eight group winners or four best runners-up.
Chhetri, though, knows the draw could have been a lot worse.
“I was excited to know the draw, not as per say the teams because we already knew the kind of teams that can be drawn from each group,” Chhetri said.
“I wouldn’t lie, but we boys had discussed a lot of permutation and combination.
“In the end we were just calm and just wanted to know the result. And once the results were out, we were happy, optimistic, everything.”
In May, India appointed former Croatia defender Igor Stimac coach on a two-year contract after Englishman Stephen Constantine walked away from the job in the wake of the exit from the group stages of the Asian Cup.
Stimac was part of the Croatia team that sensationally reached the semi-finals of the World Cup at the first attempt in 1998 while the biggest achievement on his coaching resume is helping his country qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals.
Chhetri has already been impressed.
“He comes with a great pedigree, with a lot of experience and knowledge both as a player and as a coach,” he added.
“And it shows with the way he trains us, in the way he behaves with us and in the way he talks to us.
“Apart from his technical and tactical knowledge he is someone who wants to give a chance to everyone.
“If I am allowed to say so, not sure he will like it or not, but he is somebody who wants to keep the ball and play from behind. That’s the way forward.”
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Nick Mulvenney)