Bengaluru (Karnataka) [India], June 22 (ANI): Following his side’s win over arch-rivals Pakistan in the SAFF Championship campaign opener, ace Indian striker Sunil Chhetri said that it was amazing to be able to maintain a clean sheet and added that though it is going to get difficult later in the tournament, his team feels confident.
The Indian men’s football team ran roughshod over arch-rivals Pakistan in their opening game of the SAFF Championship 2023, putting four goals past a hapless rival defence at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on Wednesday. Indian skipper Chhetri led from the front, scoring a hat-trick (10′, 16′ and 73′) followed by Udanta Singh Kumam’s goal in the 81st minute. It took his international goal tally to 90.
Wednesday night was all about Sunil Chhetri. But he, as the captain of the nation, would refuse to make it about him. Big night, four goals for India, but what he felt the most satisfied about was the clean sheet. Three goals, all celebrated with a straight face, but when Udanta struck the fourth, he was the one with the risest smile.
“Quite satisfied that we kept a clean sheet because that was our first target. I am also happy to be back at the fortress. The atmosphere was amazing,” said Chhetri after the match as quoted by an All India Football Federation (AIFF) press release.
But there is no time to rest and think. Nepal is less than three days away. Kuwait will be a tough nut to crack after that.
“We did some good things, but I am sure the coach will tell us a few things where we can improve. It is going to get more difficult from here, but the way we are playing, we are quite confident. At home, we always feel powerful,” added Chhetri.
Ninety international goals. No matter what, no matter how, no matter who, it is a surreal number. Sunil Chhetri is now the fourth-highest international goalscorer in the history of the sport, overtaking Malaysia’s Mokhtar Dahari at 89. Only centurions Cristiano Ronaldo, Ali Daei and Lionel Messi have netted more times for their nation than the Indian skipper.
The night of June 21 in Bengaluru had it all. Eight-time SAFF champions India versus a new-look Pakistan. A rain-lashed Kanteerava. Unwavering support from the Blue Tigers faithful. Cool evening, but hot heads. And to top it all, a Sunil Chhetri hat-trick.
The fourth hat-trick of his career against the same side he announced his arrival on the international stage 18 years ago. On June 12, 2005, when Chhetri scored on his India debut against Pakistan in Quetta, he would not have imagined the glistening career which awaited him. Pakistan would not have guessed he would still be haunting them almost two decades down the line.
“I got so pumped up that I ran to celebrate and put my arms out. It was pin-drop silence as the crowd looked at me angrily. My teammates did not join me,” is how Chhetri smilingly described that debut goal moment.
He didn’t have to run to celebrate after opening the scoring this time in Bengaluru. It was his teammates who did the running. First Sahal, who held him dearly with both hands, followed by Ashique, then Thapa, then Chhangte. Noise levels unmatched. A jet could fly over the Kanteerava, and you wouldn’t be able to hear it.
Both his next goals arrived from the penalty spot. Make no mistake, it is not as easy to convert from 12 yards as it looks. But Chhetri has always been a master of this art. Pakistan custodian Saqib Hanif correctly guessed the direction on both occasions, but there was but no chance. Too accurate and powerful to save.
The first one went straight into the side netting. A short run-up, and bam. The second one seemed trickier. Heavy rain. Uneven pitch on the other end. But there was no way he could let down the almost 23-thousand-strong crowd watching in anticipation. Even shorter run-up this time, before he coolly lodged it into the top-left corner.
Hat-trick. Delhi witnessed his first one 15 years ago in the 4-1 win over Tajikistan in the AFC Challenge Cup Final. It was a monumental day not just for the 23-year-old Chhetri, but for the Blue Tigers too, as the victory secured them qualification to the AFC Asian Cup after 27 long years.
Pune saw Chhetri’s next treble, then it was Mumbai. And now, Bengaluru, his home for the last 10 years, has finally had the privilege to revel in a magical night for their legend in national colours. It would be unfair not to acknowledge Kanteerava’s contribution. The stadium didn’t just witness the sensational night but inspired it.
“When times are tryin’, we keep the tricolour flyin’,” was the message from the West Block Blues before kick-off. Weekday and pouring rain didn’t matter. There was non-stop chanting from start to finish.
Chhetri has always admitted that he prefers not to keep track of his international goals. However, his millions of fans cannot help but glance at the all-time rankings each time he strikes. Every goal creates history.
India will be playing Nepal next in their second Group A match on Saturday.