NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Sunil Chhetri has been the face of Indian soccer in recent times and the forward promised to lead by example in their return to the AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates after an eight-year hiatus.
Chhetri is the lone surviving member of the 2011 team who lost all three group games in Qatar but the 34-year-old is determined to make a mark in what is potentially his final appearance in the continent’s biggest tournament next month.
“There were quite a few senior players in that team and whatever I learnt from them, I now try to do the same thing,” Chhetri told reporters at a kit unveiling on Wednesday.
“It’s more important to lead by action than by speaking stuff. So I try to be a good example...I just hope everyone follows and we can keep pushing each other,” said Chhetri who led India in the qualifiers.
Chhetri’s tally of 65 goals from 103 international matches since his 2005 debut makes him India’s most prolific striker, earning him a high profile even in a cricket-mad country.
Chhetri dismissed suggestions that he was the only household name in Indian soccer and said stellar performance by team mates like defender Sadesh Jhingan, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh and fellow striker Jeje Lalpekhlua made his job easier.
“I don’t feel any burden when I hit the ground. The burden is more on them,” Chhetri said.
“My job is relatively easier because they do all the hard work and I capitalise on it and hog the limelight. They’ve been in great form over the last two years and probably these six-seven players are the reasons we’ve qualified for Asian Cup.”
India will kick off their Group A campaign against Thailand on Jan. 6 before taking on hosts UAE and Bahrain.
“We’re going to prepare as well as possible for our first game which is against a difficult side. That’s why we’re trying to make sure we get maximum points from that game. That’s what we as players are thinking right now,” Chhetri said.
“I was there for the draw, and was trying to think what would be a good draw for me. When I looked at other teams, I knew no matter who we get, it’s going to be difficult...There are three difficult games but we’re prepared.”
English coach Stephen Constantine will be without defenders Nishu Kumar and Jerry Lalrinzuala through knee injuries.
“My only concern is that we don’t lose anybody on the way...We look forward to make India proud,” he said.
Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi; editing by Martyn Herman