Sunday, April 21

Chhetri passes Messi as India springs surprise in Asian Cup

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AS he went past Lionel Messi to second on the all-time list of top international scorers this week, Sunil Chhetri helped India virtually assure itself of a place in the knockout stages of the ongoing 2019 AFC Asian Cup.

But the skipper had the common sense to admit that the numbers don’t tell the full story.

Chhetri scored twice as the Indians stunned Thailand 4-1 in United Arab Emirates to register their first Asian Cup finals’ win since 1964.

He took his goal tally to 67 from 105 matches, beyond Messi’s 65 from 128 games.

“There’s no comparison, whatsoever, between me and Lionel Messi. I’m just happy and honoured to play and score for my country,’’ Chhetri told reporters after the game. “As far as comparisons are concerned, I don’t take them seriously.”

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo heads the chart with 85 goals from 154 games.

Now 34 years old, Chhetri holds a Messi-like status in Indian football, having made his international debut in 2005.

He had unsuccessful, short stints the United States and Portugal, before returning to be a shining light of dominant Bengaluru FC.

India’s Sunil Chhetri (centre) celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Group A game between Thailand and India at the Al Nahyan Stadium stadium in Abu Dhabi. — AFP photo

But Chhetri is more like Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero than Barcelona’s Messi.

Smart, quick, compact and stronger in the latter part of his career, he has the invaluable knack of scoring crucial goals when his teams most need them.

I met Chhetri last year in India where we were both working on studio coverage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup for a huge subcontinental television audience.

Crossing paths in the gymnasium of the plush Westin Hotel at Mumbai Garden City, I saw first-hand Sunil’s athletic and physical prowess, plus his focus and determination.

India’s crushing victory saw Thailand coach Milovan Rajevac sacked soon after full-time.

At the apparent cost of the War Elephants’ free-flowing style, Rajevac had tried to tighten their defence, only to be undone by the brilliant Chhetri.

An embarrassing defeat to the side touted as the weakest in the group after November’s failure to defend their AFF Suzuki Cup crown saw the Serbian boss abruptly shown the door.

It is hard to remember a better week for Indian sport, with its beloved national cricket team confirming a first-ever Test series win in Australia.

Rain in Sydney saw the Aussies escape avoid defeat in the final Test, but it didn’t stop Virat Kohli’s side from confirming a 2-1 series triumph to confirm its place in the record books.

Adding to the Aussies’ misery was a pitiful opening performance from the Socceroos in the Asian Cup, falling to a 1-0 loss to minnows Jordan in their opening match.

There was a sense of déjà vu for coach Graham Arnold.

He suffered a similar disaster in his previous time in charge at the 2007 Asian Cup when Australia could take only one point from their first group matches against Oman and ultimate champions, Iraq.

The Times of India sports pages were dominated by the aftermath of the cricket success, but they did devote significant space to the Blue Tigers’ triumph.

In the wake of the India’s hosting of the 2017 Under-17 FIFA World Cup, a strong Asian Cup showing is seen as an important building block in the sport’s development.

India ended last year at their highest-ever FIFA ranking of 97th, a massive improvement in the four years since plummeting to the miserable mark of 171st in 2014.

Along with Chhetri, coach Stephen Constantine deserves credit for India’s improvement.

Back for a second spell in
charge, having managed the national team in 2002-05, the Englishman has worked shrewdly within the sport’s limited resources in the world’s second-biggest nation.

Simply qualifying for the Asian Cup for a fourth time was touted as a major stepping stone.

But how much further India can go in this tournament after a good start could come down to the flair of Chhetri.

In the 2001 South Asian Football Federation (AFF) Championship, Chhetri set a new tournament record of seven goals.

However, scoring against Bhutan and Afghanistan is a lot easier than breaching the defences of Japan, Iran or even Bahrain whom India will face in their final group game on Monday.

That is why Chhetri was quick to dismiss statistical comparisons with Messi, who regularly faces up to the likes of Brazil, Uruguay and Columbia in South American qualification for World Cups.

With his 36th birthday approaching in August, this will surely be Chhetri’s last major tournament, given India’s traditional struggles in qualifying.

So, he will be keen to leave an indelible mark in his team’s remaining matches in the UAE to prove that his brace against Thailand wasn’t his international swansong.

Jason Dasey is CEO of Singapore-based Cockatoo Media and host of corporate events in Borneo.