By Abilash Nalapat Sc.qa
India’s most capped player and all-time leading scorer Sunil Chhetri believes he can reignite his special bond with Qatar, as he seeks to script Indian footballing history with his club, Bengaluru FC, in the AFC Cup final in the “appropriate setting” of Doha.
India’s star forward and former captain, who scored two goals in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar, will lead out the I-League champions as they seek to become the first team from India to win an Asian title since 1962.
Bengaluru will take to the field against Iraq’s Al Quwa Al Jawiya in Saturday’s final at the Qatar Sports Club Stadium.
The 32-year-old forward, who has scored 51 goals in 91 international caps, spoke exclusively to www.sc.qa hours before flying out to Doha and said that Qatar’s Indian community – the largest expatriate group residing in the 2022 FIFA World Cup host nation – will help his side create history for Indian football in their adopted homeland.
“Bengaluru reaching the AFC Cup final in the host country of the 2022 World Cup, and hopefully winning it, has signalled the beginning of the revival of Indian football as an Asian power,” said Chhetri, who has plied his trade in the reserve team of Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon and in the MLS for the Kansas City Wizards.
The Indian national team last won the Asian Games title in 1962, and were runners-up in the AFC Asian Cup two years later. But no side from the country has managed to reach an Asian final since then, until the club from the southern metropolis defeated defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) of Malaysia in the semi-finals – and Chhetri is relishing the prospect of the final.
“There is no better place in Asia for this revival to begin than in Doha, which will host the next Asian World Cup,” he explained.
“We’ve already reached out to the Indian community in Doha and have begun receiving such warm responses promising support for the final. I am confident our fellow-Indians living in Doha will turn up at the Qatar SC Stadium in large numbers on 5 November. I would like to tell them that our appearance in the final is not just about the city of Bengaluru or the province of Karnataka.
“It is about India and its revival in Asian football in your adopted homeland, which will host the next Asian World Cup.”
Chhetri scored two goals in Bengaluru’s 3-1 second leg win at home in the semi-finals against JDT, which sealed an aggregate 4-2 triumph. And the star of Indian football said it was a case of déjà vu after having inspired the national team to book a ticket to Doha for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, the first time India qualified for the elite continental competition since 1984.
He had scored a hat-trick in the qualification game – the AFC Challenge Cup final against Tajikistan in New Delhi.
“I had never thought of it before winning the semi-finals, but I think I have a special bond with Doha,” he continued.
“I hope my connection with the city helps my club win the final. The Asian Cup was a big learning curve for Indian football, and I managed to score two goals as well against Bahrain and South Korea.
“However, the AFC Cup final is a different ball game. It is about signalling India’s resurgence in the Asian scene. We’ve battled through for a year and made it here.”
Chhetri is confident that Bengaluru’s feat will be just the start for Indian football to regain its Asian glory days.
“Indian football has a good system in place with a lot of investment coming in,” he added.
“Our Under-16 national team fought hard against established Asian powers Saudi Arabia and UAE in the recent AFC Under-16 Championships in Goa, and we are hopeful they will make a statement at next year’s FIFA Under-17 World Cup at home.
“Some of the Under-17 boys will be ready for senior duty by 2019, when we start the qualification campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“With success coming at the Asian level for Bengaluru, the Indian national team will have a confident group of players for the 2022 qualifiers.”
Chhetri concluded by saying that he would be looking to pass the wealth of experience won over an unparalleled career on to his teammates as they look to create more history for India.
“We are hoping we will give other teams a real fight in the 2022 qualifiers. We will get something close to a home ambience in a World Cup if we qualify – it will almost be like playing a World Cup in India. We will be a determined lot come 2019.”
Chhetri’s Bengaluru take on Al Quwa Al Jawiya at the Suhaim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on Saturday 5 November. The match kicks off at 7pm local time.
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