A near-capacity crowd at Kolkata's iconic Salt Lake Stadium witnessed the Indian football team qualify for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup in style, beating Hong Kong 4-0 on Tuesday (June 14) in their final qualifying round match.
Buoyed by the enthusiastic spectators who braved heavy rain and thunderstorms to see the Blue Tigers in action, Indian captain Sunil Chhetri has now expressed his desire to play the Asian Cup on home soil.
Chhetri said after India secured a second consecutive qualification to the Asian Cup for the first time in history:
"Given the kind of form we're in, we'd love to play at home. The way the fans are coming and supporting us in numbers, it would be great to play here."
India defeated Cambodia and Afghanistan before claiming a convincing win over Hong Kong. All matches were played at the Salt Lake Stadium, where India were playing at home for the first time in more than two years.
Chhetri, who scored the second goal of the night, praised the rise of youngsters in the national team over the course of the three-match campaign. Anwar Ali, Manvir Singh, and Ishan Pandita netted the remaining three goals. He said:
"The kids are just amazing. They'll probably kill me for calling them kids. The boys are fantastic. We have the right mix of senior and junior players in the dressing room. You also have Liston (Colaco) and Suresh (Wangjam) along with Akash (Mishra) and Roshan (Singh) who have been brilliant."
"So yes, a lot of youngsters are coming up. Ishan (Pandita), too, has been outstanding in training. Look what he did today. Ishan and Sahal (Abdul Samad) are two players who deserve nights like this."
Chhetri is set to play in his third Asian Cup finals, having previously featured in the tournament in 2011 and 2019. Despite being 37 years old, the forward feels he is at his peak now. The Bengaluru FC skipper, who has scored four times in his last three international outings, stated:
"Now I am hitting my peak. The last Asian Cup is already past. We really want to work hard. It doesn't matter if I'm there in the next big tournaments, or if someone else gets the nod. India should be there in the Asian Cup. I have already said this. It's paramount for us as a nation to continue being in the Asian Cup so that we can rub our shoulders with the best in Asia."
With his goal against Hong Kong, Chhetri equalled Hungary legend Ferenc Puskas' tally of 84 international goals. He's currently placed joint-fifth in the list of all-time international goal scorers. Staying true to his philosophy of 'service before self', he revealed that he doesn't chase individual milestones:
"It feels good, but you have to carry on. I genuinely do not think too much about the records. I know considering the number of matches I’ve played for the country, I don’t have that many left. I want to go out there and enjoy every game. I want to slide, I want to run and I want to do each and everything I can because I know it isn’t going to last a really long time. It’s absolutely the best thing that has ever happened in my life — playing for my country. It’s an absolute honour, every bit of it."