Footballing gemstone still shines at 37

Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri says the side would love to play the Asian Cup finals on home soil with the star forward confessing to "hitting my peak" at 37 years old.

About 85,000 fans at the iconic Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata witnessed the Indian team qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup finals in style, beating Hong Kong 4-0 on June 14.

Impressed by the huge turnout for their last qualifying game despite heavy rains, Chhetri expressed the desire to play the finals in India.

"The kind of form we are in, we would love to play at home," he said after India secured a second straight entry to the Asian Cup finals for the first time in history.

"The way the fans support us, it would be great to play here."

China was scheduled to host the Asian Cup finals next year but withdrew because of the fluid Covid-19 situation.

India defeated Cambodia and Afghanistan before securing a convincing win over Hong Kong in Group D of the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers. All matches were played at the Salt Lake Stadium, where India played for the first time in two years.

Chhetri is set to play in his third Asian Cup finals after previous appearances in 2011 and 2019. Despite his age, the striker told The Times Of India: "Now I am hitting my peak.

"We really want to work hard. It does not matter if I am there in the next big tournaments or anyone else gets the nod, India should be there at the Asian Cup.

"It is paramount for us to be at the Asian Cup so that we can rub shoulders with the best. It'll also give us a chance to play friendlies with better-ranked opponents leading up to the tournament."

Having scored his 84th goal in national colours against Hong Kong, Chhetri levelled with Hungary legend Ferenc Puskas in the all-time international scorers' list, in which he sits joint-fifth.

The list is topped by Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (117 goals), followed by Iran's Ali Daei (109), Malaysia's Mokhtar Dahari (89) and Argentinian whiz Lionel Messi (86).

It is a terrific achievement to be ranked alongside these giants of football. But Chhetri reiterated that he does not pay heed to records.

"Feels good but you have to carry on. I genuinely do not think too much about records," he told The Times Of India.

"I know, considering the matches I have played for the country, I don't have many left. I want to go out there and enjoy every game."

Where would India be without Chhetri is probably a question that floods the metaverse almost every time the team plays. It captures both India's plight without its talisman and the awe that Chhetri inspires with his ridiculous levels of reliability.

Since he made his debut on June 12, 2005, the Secunderabad-born player has scored almost a third of India's goals.

Would India have qualified for the Asian Cups in 2011, 2019 and 2023 without his strikes? Or won the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championships so frequently?

Pundits believe they would have succumbed to more embarrassing defeats if not for Chhetri's numerous rescue acts.

It's also true that no player from this generation has come close to matching his scoring prowess, consistency or longevity - 84 goals in 129 matches against 31 different opponents over 17 years.

"He's reliable, that's what gives us confidence on the field," India defender Rahul Bheke told The Indian Express.

"During the qualifiers, we knew if we played a decent ball to him inside the box, he'd get the job done."

Bheke pointed out that four goals in three matches in the qualifiers is an example of Chhetri's ability to deliver unfailingly.

"There were lots of expectations on the team to qualify and it was justified: we were playing at home," he said.

"Sunil's goals made sure we qualified. Just like how his goals helped us in SAFF Championships and other matches."

Looking at Chhetri's career merely through numbers, however, does not do justice to the man and all that he has done for Indian football.

He has changed the mindset by chucking aside the semi-pro culture and embracing professionalism to an unprecedented level. With his heartfelt pleas, he has got bums on seats when the national team plays and ensures those fans are entertained.

As former Bengaluru FC manager Carles Cuadrat told The Indian Express: "Chhetri is a treasure, a kind of special gemstone for Indian football. What makes Sunil special is his position on the pitch.

"A lot of players who perform well for such a long time are central defenders or defensive midfielders, not wingers or fullbacks because they have to run a lot. Also, not forwards because they have to keep scoring always.

"In Sunil's case, what makes it more special is that he is performing as a striker and is the top scorer of any team he plays for, India or Bengaluru."

Chhetri's first captain Shanmugam Venkatesh said the secret lies in the sacrifices he made.

"He challenges himself every day," Venkatesh said.

"When I played, I could eat biryani on the eve of the match. My body could handle that.

"But Sunil doesn't party, doesn't eat junk, sleeps early, wakes up early, works out every day, doesn't miss training - a boring lifestyle for a normal person but that's the reason he has been able to play so consistently for 17 years."

There are few cheat days, even during the off-season.

"He has a plan and reason for everything," said Bheke.

"Sunil has won most of his titles and individual awards in his 30s. To achieve that, he sets targets for himself and then keeps himself motivated enough to work hard every day.

"A lot of us learn just by observing him: what he eats, how he trains, the importance of rest. In that sense, he is a big influence on the players. At the same time, he doesn't overdo anything."

Indo-Asian News Service

"Chhetri is a treasure, a kind of special gemstone for Indian football."

- Spanish coach Carles Cuadrat on Sunil Chhetri (right)

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