KOLKATA: Indian national team captain Sunil Chhetri is thrilled at the prospect of qualifying for the 2023 Asian Cup in front of the fans at the Salt Lake Stadium here, which he described as the best in India.
India take on Cambodia in their first Group D match of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup third-round qualifiers on Wednesday, followed by Afghanistan and Hong Kong.
The national team is set to play for the first time on home soil in almost three years. Incidentally, the last time they played in the country was in Kolkata as well, in October 2019.
"It will be massive, otherwise why do teams enjoy having the home advantage? And what better place to have it than Kolkata. Wherever we have played, even in Gujarat (Intercontinental Cup) last time we had tremendous support despite us not usually playing there," Chhetri said.
"There are a few pockets which are very famous for fans giving us everything they have got in numbers -- Kerala, Guwahati, Bengaluru but none probably better than the Salt Lake Stadium, I think along with Kochi. We enjoy tremendous support here. The memories are still fresh from the last time we played here three years ago as far as fan support is concerned. We are really happy and I just hope everyone comes in numbers and we can enjoy the atmosphere," the talismanic striker said.
India have featured in four Asian Cup tournament finals, finishing runners-up in 1964. In the latest edition in 2019, India bowed out in the group stage but had impressed in a dominating 4-1 win against Thailand in their opening match. Chhetri believes qualifying for Asia's showpiece football event should be a non-negotiable benchmark.
"It is paramount. That is the bare minimum we should do, for two reasons -- one we get the opportunity to rub shoulders with the best in Asia, and two, because we can. We have shown enough in the past that this is something we should aim for on a regular basis and achieve. For a team like India, which genuinely and desperately wants to improve, playing in the Asian Cup is a bare minimum. I don't want to put pressure on players but I am saying it in a genuine manner, as a fan, I will always want to see India playing at the Asian Cup," said the 37-year-old.
India's record goalscorer with 80 goals, Chhetri is joint-third on the list of active international goal-scorers, just behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. As captain, Chhetri feels proud with the likes of young guns Liston Colaco and Manvir Singh knocking on the doors to demand a permanent spot in the national team XI.
"I feel very happy when there are players knocking on the doors to be playing in the first XI. It doesn't matter to me which position they are demanding the place for. As far as the captain in me is concerned, I feel elated when there are players who do well when they get their chance and cement their position. At the end of the day, we all want a national team that has healthy competition for places, a pre-identified first eleven, first fourteen. Even the coach wants it if you ask him," Chhetri remarks.
Chhetri said that the hunger to score and win matches for the national team has not died down a bit.
"As a player, I will keep working hard for my place in the same manner as when I was 19 when I first came into the team and was fighting for my place with the likes of Bhaichung bhai. It is the same now. When you are playing for the national team, you have to fight for your place. It is the same for me, Gurpreet, Sandesh, or a youngster like Suresh, or anyone."
"The one who is going to give the most to the team is going to start, it is very simple. Places are up for grabs for everyone and the players coming through doing well, gives an added advantage to the team because sifting through the whole competition, only the best will take the field," Chhetri signed off.