Kolkata, June 13: Not willing to read too much into their Intercontinental Cup win, India captain Sunil Chhetri on Tuesday said the 2019 AFC Asian Cup would be ‘at a different level’ with teams like UAE, Bahrain and Thailand.
“It was a great preparatory tournament for us. We don’t play teams like Kenya and New Zealand everyday. It was a different challenge. No matter how much we improve, it might still be less,” Chhetri told reporters after receiving the Indian Player of Year award at the Football Players Association of India (FPAI) Awards at the Calcutta Sports Journalists’ Club here.
“With due respect to Kenya and New Zealand, the teams that are competing against us in the Asian Cup — like Thailand, Bahrain and UAE — they are at least two-three levels up.
“It’s a different level altogether. We all try our best to prepare well and everyone comes to the camp in December fit and injury-free,” the 33-year old added.
Chhetri urged his teammates to keep their heads down and continue working hard without getting carried away by the triumph in the four-nation meet in Mumbai.
“Where we want to reach is very far. We are just taking small steps. There is no point getting carried away. We should work hard keeping our heads down and try to keep improving ourselves,” the Indian captain said.
Chhetri, who netted eight goals in four matches, also played his milestone 100th match in India colours.
He also became joint second highest International goal scorer among active players along with Argentine superstar Lionel Messi with his 64th strike.
Chhetri however said his best strike is yet to come and he’s hoping that it comes in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup from January 5-February 1 in the UAE.
“I can’t think of my favourite goal right now. Hopefully when I score in the Asian Cup that will be my favourite goal. But Mahesh Gawli and Anwar Ali were two of my favourite defenders I played against or with,” Chhetri said.
“I’m really really happy that I scored that many goals for my country. I am more proud that I’ve played 100 games for my country. That is huge for me and my family,” he opined.
India had a forgettable outing in the 2011 Asian Cup, going down to Australia (0-4), Bahrain (2-5) and South Korea (1-4) and later failed to qualify in the 2015 edition of Asia’s showpiece event.
“We tried our best. We had the man of the tournament in Subrata Pal, who was outstanding. But let me tell you we don’t play Australia, UAE and Japan everyday. It’s not easy to play against them,” Chhetri said.
“Just go there and try to improve. I think we are a better team now. I will make sure that we are a better team when it comes in December,” he added.
“How do we know how far are we, because South Korea, Iran, Australia, Saudi Arabia are playing the World Cup. How do we know how far are we if we are not going to play against them? It’s small steps. Slowly steadily we will reach there. We cannot just go there and jump,” said Chhetri who scored 20 goals in the Indian Super League (ISL) and Super Cup.
Meanwhile ISL runners-up and Super Cup champions Bengaluru FC dominated the FPAI awards.
Bengaluru coach Albert Roca was adjudged the Best Coach, while Nicolas Fedor Flores (Miku) was chosen the Best Foreign Player, the award of which was received by Chhetri.
Jamshedpur FC’s Jerry Mawihmingthanga got the Best Young Player of the Year, while Neorca FC’s Subhas Singh took the Fans Player of the Year.
The awards ceremony also felicitated I-League champions Minerva FC, former India captain Subrata Bhattacharya, goalkeeper Henry Menezes and I-League winning coach Sanjoy Sen.