Chhetri backs Stimac’s 4-week camp for Asian Cup, wants match against teams like Iran, Japan or Saudi

New Delhi:  Indian captain Sunil Chhetri on Sunday backed head coach Igor Stimac’s demand for a four-week camp before the Asian Cup early next year, saying the team needs to have enough preparation time to face the best sides in the continent.

The 38-year-old Chhetri, who will be playing his last Asian Cup in Doha (January 12 to February 10), also pitched for at least one international friendly match against a top-seven ranked country in Asia such as Iran, Japan or Saudi Arabia before the continental showpiece.

“We are going to face Australia, Uzbekistan and Syria in the Asian Cup (group matches), that is why Stimac (as well as goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu) have spoken about long camps. We need it, and I really hope we get it,” Chhetri said in a virtual media interaction.

“When you go to the national camp, there are injuries to players and they come with different mental levels from their respective clubs. You need to take care of all these, and to do that, you need more time,” he said, attributing the team’s success in the recent tournaments to a long camp of more than 50 days.

India won the tri-nation international tournament in Manipur (March 22-28) before clinching titles in the Intercontinental Cup (June 9-18) in Bhubaneswar and SAFF Championships (June 21 to July 4) in Bengaluru. The players were in the national camp from mid-May till the SAFF Championships.

Stimac had said he would need at least a four-week camp to do well in the Asian Cup while the All India Football Federation (AIFF) top brass had indicated that his demand would be difficult to meet as the clubs may not agree to release their players for such a long period in the midst of the domestic season.

“Eventually, how many days we get (for national camp) depends on the talks (among the stakeholders) but I really hope to get as many days as possible,” said the talismanic striker.

Chhetri, who was named the most valuable player after emerging as the top scorer in the SAFF Championships, also said the team needs to play at least one international friendly against a country ranked in the top-six or seven in the continent, ahead of the Asian Cup.

“If we get at least two or three important international friendly games before the Asian Cup, including at least one against a country ranked in top six or seven in Asia, that will give us a good picture of ourselves and will make us more ready.

“If I throw the name, it could be against Iran, Japan or Saudi Arabia. If we don’t play against Japan, Iran or South Korea, we will not know the level of Australia (India’s strongest opponents in the Asian Cup).

“To prepare for these big matches against the top teams, we need a camp of four weeks. If we get five days of national camp we will not be ready for these big matches. To face Australia in the Asian Cup, we will need at least a couple of levels higher than what we are having in ISL, and for that we need longer preparation time.” India’s next assignment will be the Kings Cup (September 7-10) in Thailand where the team faces Iraq, Lebanon and the host country.

“Playing against Iraq will give us an idea about Uzbekistan because they are of similar level. The matches against Lebanon and Kuwait (in SAFF Championships) gave us how Syria is going to be though Syria is little higher in level than the two teams (Lebanon and Kuwait).” Chhetri also gave a thumbs up to AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey’s comment that the country should play in tournaments involving Central Asian Football Association (CAFA) teams.

“I welcome the proposal to play in bigger tournaments and against better teams. The more difficult teams we face, the better for us.

“But the number of international matches we play in a year should not be less, but it also should not be a lot. We should get adequate matches but it should not be more than enough also.” He reiterated his long-held view that India should field U-23 (or U-21) side in the SAFF Championships.

Chhetri, who turns 39 next month, said that he has no particular date in mind to retire from the game.

“I am enjoying my football, and I feel really healthy. I don’t have a date (on retirement) in my head. I have set a high standard for myself, and the day I don’t add (value) to the team, I am gone.

“But, I don’t know when it is going to happen.” Talking about his younger strike partners however, he said, “your captain is old and soon he will be out.” “I will be here till the time I can, not because the team needs me but because I want to be here,” he said disapprovingly when asked if his successors in the team will fade away after his retirement.

He pointed out that the conversion rate of the forwards was a cause for concern, though the team needs improvement in all aspects, to be able to face the best in the continent.

He also warned that the Kings Cup in Thailand and the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia in October will test the team as there will not be crowd support and the players will be playing in different conditions.

With his wife Sonam expecting, Chhetri said he can’t wait to become a father.

“I am reading a lot of books and taking notes from a lot of people who are already fathers. I also speak a lot to my own father. How good or bad I will be as a father, I don’t know. I will learn and I hope I am ready (for fatherhood). Just like I do on football, I will try my best.” Chhetri played in two 120-minute games in the SAFF Championships (in semifinal and final) and scored in the penalty shootout too.

Asked about his daily routine, he said, “I get up at 6am, take a cold shower, read some books, do some stretching, have some coffee at 7:30am, go for training and come back at 11am, take a nice bath.

“I take my lunch between 12:30 to 1pm, then take a nap and get up at 3:30pm. Then I either go to gym or do double training if I am playing for club or country, come back and have some snacks.

“I take my dinner before 7:30pm and go to sleep by 10:30pm. This is what I do everyday.” With 92 strikes from 142 matches, Chhetri is currently Asia’s most prolific scorer among active players.

“Being able to play 100 matches for the country is an unbelievable achievement. I want to score every time I play for my country but, at the moment, I am not thinking of scoring 100 goals.”