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Asian Cup qualifiers: I’m playing my last games, so FIFA ban on India will be catastrophic, says Sunil Chhetri

Kolkata: Talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri on Friday dropped yet another hint that his retirement is not far away, saying a FIFA ban on India in the aftermath of Supreme Court’s ruling to oust Praful Patel as AIFF president would be catastrophic as he is playing his “last games”.

The 37-year-old Chhetri’s retirement has been a matter of speculation for some time now and he has said on many occasions that his illustrious career will come to an end soon.

“No matter what is happening on that front, I hope it is under control and the country does not get a ban,” the iconic India captain said during a media interaction ahead of the Asian Cup qualifiers final round beginning here on 8 June.

“Because, that will be catastrophic, not just for the whole country but for me, because I’m 37. I’m playing my last games. You never know when there’s a last game for you.

“So yes… I was scared when the headlines came, it affects you. But with my limited knowledge, when you go into it, you understand that it is not that dangerous and things will subside,” he added.

Patel was thrown out of office by the Supreme Court in a 18 May ruling as he has exceeded his tenure as All India Football Federation President. His third term in office was to end in December 2020 but he clung on to a SC case, which remained pending since 2017, to extend his executive committee’s term while refusing to hold elections till the issue of a new constitution was settled by the top court.

There were fears in some quarters that the SC ruling could lead to FIFA imposing a ban on India and stripping the country off the hosting rights of Under-17 Women’s World Cup in October. A joint team from FIFA and AFC is slated to visit India to “understand the current situation”.

Chhetri made his international comeback after more than six months of injury lay-off during India’s 0-2 defeat against Jordan in Doha on May 29, their last preparatory outing ahead of the Asian Cup Qualifiers.

‘Can’t give you a number about my retirement’

Every time he takes the pitch, there’s speculation about his retirement and the Indian captain happily responds with a smile that “I don’t know yet”.

“Same question was asked before the last Asia Cup (2019) that ‘what next’ and I said the same thing. Five years have passed. It’s the same now. I was 32 then, now I’m 37-38. I don’t know, maybe.

“Right now, I’m enjoying it. I enjoy sprinting with Udanta (Singh), enjoying headers with (Sandesh) Jhingan, and scoring against Gurpreet. The day I don’t (enjoy), I’ll be done, I can’t give you a number when.

“It’s not easy to get up at 6 o’clock everyday or do a 30-minute yoga session before everyone wakes up. It’s a very, very strict life that I live. It’s not easy to do it for 21 years.”

Whether the Asia Cup will be held in 2023 or 2024 is not yet clear after China pulled out of hosting it next year, citing spike in COVID-19 cases, something that may further complicate matters for Chhetri.

“I want to qualify. If I’m not there, my country will be there. If we don’t qualify, then no matter who, none of us will be there. We want to be there.”

Clubbed with lower-ranked opponents in Hong Kong (147), Afghanistan (150) and Cambodia (171), world number 106 India are favourites to make the cut from group D.

After kicking off their campaign against Cambodia on June 8, India take on Afghanistan (11 June) and Hong Kong (14 June) in the round-robin league.

Chhetri said India’s opening game against an “unknown” Cambodia would be the toughest match of the qualifiers.
“If we don’t do well against Cambodia, you have lost half your battle.

“As of now, we are just thinking about Cambodia. Once we are done with them, we will think about Afghanistan. No doubt, Afghanistan are strong.”

Chhetri said the inconsistency of the team’s performance bothers him a lot.

“The sad part of our team is that in the last four years, we had a very crazy graph which is what bothers me. We had a couple of performances, where we thought wow,” he said, referring to India’s 1-2 loss to Oman and a goalless draw to Qatar in the World Cup qualifiers.

“Then you come and play against Bangladesh, Afghanistan, the two first games in SAFF. That’s what bothers us as a team,” he said about the drawn matches against lowly ranked Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

“The onus is on us. We have to fix first individually then as a team, there’s something wrong with us.”

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