Need for stability in the national team, squashing the egos to sort out the mess surrounding national league and the need to ‘keep asking questions’ to hold decision makers in Indian football accountable. India will take on North Korea in the Intercontinental Cup on Saturday. But that wasn’t the only thing on Sunil Chhetri’s mind on the eve of the match.
Earlier this week, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) took a big step towards making the Indian Super League (ISL) the country’s premier domestic tournament while virtually relegating the decade-old I-League as second division championship. The move has been opposed by I-League clubs, who had last month threatened to drag the AIFF to court over this issue.
It’s a decision that has split the country’s football fraternity. Chhetri, who has played in – and won – both leagues refrained from naming any party involved in the saga but insisted that ‘no one has succeeded the moment they bring put ego above everything else.’ “Egos are never nice. I have experienced that a lot of times in my career. Whenever I’ve used egos over my sensibilities, I have failed. Ego is fine until it’s working for your motivation and encouragement. Moment it bring it above (anyone else), no one has succeeded,” Chhetri said.
The India captain added he ‘hoped’ AIFF and IMG-Reliance officials are taking right decisions but insisted that ‘we have to keep asking questions, keep banging them on so they are answerable.’ “I think people who are involved are doing their best. It’s what I think, more importantly what I want to believe. We’ve to ask questions, criticize each other, hold collars but eventually, we have to trust each other,” Chhetri said.
The country’s leading goal-scorer was speaking ahead of India’s Intercontinental Cup match against North Korea. It’s a must-win match for India to keep their hopes of qualifying for the final alive after they lost 4-2 to Tajikistan in the tournament opener last Sunday. Although this is an inconsequential tournament in terms of FIFA ranking points, a winning run heading into the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifiers would leave Igor Stimac’s team in good stead.
Since taking over from Stephen Constantine in May, Stimac has been in charge of three matches. He’s won one (against Thailand) and lost two (vs Curacao and Tajikistan) but in all three games, he’s tested various players and combinations. Trying out new players is something even Constantine did throughout his four-year stint as the chief coach. Chhetri said the competition for a place in the squad has had a positive impact on the players individually but called for stability as the team heads into a crucial qualifying phase.
“I would want stability. I’m sure that’s what the coach wants as well. Every coach wants to have his first 14 (set) before a tournament or qualifiers. He wants the other 10 to push but in his head, he wants his 14,” Chhetri said. “But Stimac has time, he has just come in. I hope before our first qualifier, he gets his 14, 18… whatever he wants because stability is important.”
India, ranked 101, will know their opponents for the joint qualifiers on July 17 after the draw will be held in Kuala Lumpur. Chhetri said the team hasn’t had better preparation in terms of the quality of opponents played. “I don’t remember last time we played Curacao, Thailand, North Korea, Syria, Tajikistan in a row. That’s four back-to-back matches against B+ teams of Asia while Curacao were different level,” he said. “We’ll lose some and win some but we’ll improve after these matches. Tomorrow you’ll know where North Korea stands, where India stands.”