Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri is as enigmatic as he is composed. The talismanic forward knows how to take both praise and criticism with a pinch of salt. What's more, he always tries to shift the attention towards the youngsters in the Indian team.
At a press conference ahead of India's 2021 SAFF Championship final against Nepal on Saturday, the 37-year-old discussed the atmosphere within the team and much more.
One of the first questions posed to Chhetri was some of the takeaways from the tournament regardless of the result in the final. The Indian skipper replied that the performances of the young players in the team was one of the positives.
"Surely the performance of some of the youngsters. We talked about Apuia (Ralte) and Suresh (Wangjam). (Mohammad) Yasir did really really well, he has really surprised me. I think Liston (Colaco), starting the game and then coming (on as a change), is a proper talent. Everyone is chipping in. The coach has given a lot of players chances and everyone who came in has done really really well."
Chhetri also noted that senior Indian players have stepped up to keep the rest of the bunch on their toes during matches.
"I think Subhashish (Bose) has done really well. Rahul (Bheke) has been brilliant because we are missing Sandesh Jhingan and he has had to take the voice. Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu) is being Gurpreet. All the small, small changes and betterments in individual performances that the boys have brought in has been a welcome change."
However, the Blue Tigers captain also feels the SAFF Championship is the kind of tournament where the group stages, quarterfinals or semifinals don't really live on in public memory. Chhetri feels a win in the final is imperative for India.
"We are the dominant side in this region - and I'm not putting any pressure on ourselves - but now that we are in the final, we should go all the way and we'll try our best to do so."
Early results were worrisome but players are more joyful now: Sunil Chhetri on India's recovery after a poor start
The 3-1 victory over the Maldives that sealed India's place in the 2021 SAFF Championship final has been celebrated nationwide. However, it's easy to forget that the Blue Tigers began the tournament in sub-par fashion.
India only managed two points from their opening matches against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Both were games Igor Stimac's side should've won comfortably, and the results brought the Indian team plenty of criticism.
Chhetri believes that kind of scrutiny can adversely impact the team, and praised the senior players for keeping the situation under control within the dressing room.
"Generally the senior players make sure they calm the situation. It is very very important. When you have a team with lots of youngsters, if the mood or tempo goes down in the camp, they will not be able to perform to the best of their ability. No matter who you have in the team or how good he is, if the whole mood (is down) because of the way we lost two points in the first game, it can be very very difficult."
Chhetri name-dropped the likes of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Pritam Kotal for their efforts to keep morale high.
"What was good was seeing the likes of Gurpreet, Pritam, Subhashish, Rahul going and talking to all the youngsters, mixing around, making sure the mood doesn't deteriorate. When you lose two points the way we did against Bangladesh, not getting three points against Lanka and the number of chances we missed, it's very easy to go into that vicious circle where you start doubting each other. So (to avoid) that was very very good."
"We tried our best and kudos to those 4-5 seniors who made sure there was a little bit of banter, little bit of pulling each other's legs, a good vibe so that all the youngsters can feel a bit safer. Because it's not easy when you come to tournament where you are the favorites."
Chhetri also advised younger players to stay away from social media, before once again praising the likes of Lalengmawia Ralte, Mohammad Yasir and Suresh Wangjam for their performances.
"Also, these youngsters are on social media and they read everything that is talked about though I've told them a million times not do it. And you could see the morale going a little down. But thankfully we could control it and what you saw was the youngsters coming and performing. When you see what Suresh, Yasir and Apuiah are capable of, you know and then you start feeling comfortable."
Chhetri went on to state that the mood within the camp was positive ahead of the big final.
"It's one thing when you give your best and lose but it's another thing when you can't give your best and lose points and that's what happened in the first two games. That was worrisome but I hope we have controlled and we still have one more level and one more game to play. Now when I see around, everyone is joyful, smiling and they're mixing up which is a good sign."
"I have always said we should be at the Asian Cup" - Sunil Chhetri on his goals for the national team
At 37, Chhetri has seen several highs and lows in his time with the Indian team. While he has never publicly disclosed his long-term goals, he believes India must strive to qualify for the Asian Cup.
Asked about the things he has on his bucket-list for the next few years, Chhetri said:
"Well there are many. The very immediate one is to qualify for the Asian Cup. Although I never talk about long-term targets, it's coming near, it's very near. It is something which is very close to my heart."
The legendary forward signed off by adding that India should pit themselves against the best on the continent by qualifying for the Asian Cup. Chhetri acknowledged that recent performances may not inspire confidence within the Indian fans, but believes the team's goal is very clear.
"I have always said this, that we should be at the Asian Cup. I know our performances haven't given you and the country a lot of hope, but that's the, if I may say, bare minimum that we should do. Qualify for the Asian Cup, be there, rub shoulders with the best in Asia. It is very very important."
"So if you're asking me (about) something in my bucket list, it is to make sure that we are a good team, make sure we put our best foot forward in the qualifiers and qualify for the Asian Cup."
Before that, Chhetri will hope he can guide this talented Indian team to the 2021 SAFF Championship title on Saturday.