The last time India had registered a win in the AFC Asia Cup, Jawaharlal Nehru was still the Prime Minister of the country. S Radhakrishnan was the President. The year was 1964 and India had secured a 3-1 win over Hong Kong and was on the cusp of creating football history. However, the hosts at that time, Israel, secured a 2-1 win over South Korea to top the group and seal the title. Since that win against Hong Kong, India did not win any match in the AFC Asia Cup in the 20th century. In 2019, 55 years later, Sunil Chhetri and his players put in an inspired performance against Thailand to break five decades of pain.
Chhetri’s brace, combined with goals from Anirudh Thapa and Jeje Lalpekhlua gave India a thumping 4-1 win over a team, who had snubbed an invitation to play a friendly against them before the AFC Asia Cup. Thailand did not want to play India and they chose China for an international friendly game and this point was not lost on Indian football fans who trolled the Thailand team heavily. Following the loss, the team sacked their coach Milovan Rajevac while India coach Stephen Constantine praised the effort of the Indian team, who are the youngest side in the competition in terms of average age with 25.
Chettri, seen as an inspiration among the modern crop of Indian footballers, created his own slice of history. The Indian took his tally of goals to 67, more than Lionel Messi, considered to be the best football player in the world of Argentina, who has scored 65 goals for his country. The comparisons between Chhetri and Messi began and fans had no hesitation to say Chhetri is greater than Messi.
However, Chhetri was modest about his achievement. “"Records don't matter, it doesnt matter who scores the goals. Whoever scores the jubilation was the same. I'm glad we got all three points. It's not even fair. The two players who are above me are completely world stars. I am a big fan of Messi and Ronaldo. There is a massive difference between them and us. There is no comparison at all," Chhetri said.
Even in the post-match press conference, Chhetri reiterated that his focus was on the team doing well in this competition, where they had qualified after eight long years. “I can think about my goals some ten years later. At the moment, we need to focus. The goals need to come and it just doesn't matter who scores. You can see the jubilation and happiness whenever someone scores. I am so happy for the boys. Every one of them ran and defended for their lives,” Chhetri said.
India takes on the United Arab Emirates on January 10 and the challenge only becomes tougher for Chhetri and his side. “It's a tough pool. When we started thinking, we felt that all the others were more experienced and better than us. But the manner the boys fought, it shows a lot of character. I have said this before (that) we are a very difficult team to play against. We may not be the most technical team but we will fight till the end, and that's what the boys showed,” Chhetri said.