In the club versus country conundrum over the Hangzhou Asian Games, Indian football turned out to be the loser but Sunil Chhetri, arguably the country’s greatest footballer ever, rose above all these and gave precedence to national duty. The 39-year-old talisman, who has created seemingly unsurmountable national records in his 18-year-long international career, raised his hand and decided to lead a rag-tag national team after many Indian Super League clubs refused to release their players.
Thirteen players, including key defender Sandesh Jhingan and number one goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, from the original 22-member squad announced last month were not released by their respective ISL clubs.
A hapless All India Football Federation (AIFF), after hectic parleys, was able to stitch a second-rung 18-member team made up mostly of inexperienced players with Chhetri being the lone notable face.
“He (Chhetri) is such a reputed player and it’s not a full strength team. But he stuck his neck out and said he wanted to go for the sake of the country and he’s ready for the Asian Games. Hats off to him,” an AIFF official told PTI.
“We knew that he would rise above all these and would give the call of the nation priority and he did just that.” Chhetri’s club Bengaluru FC had six players in the initial 22, including Gurpreet, and it released two players, the other one being Rohit Danu.
“Of course, his (Chhetri’s) club said yes and released him. So, credit to Bengaluru FC also. The club made the sacrifice of releasing its best player when it is not a FIFA window,” the official said.
The clubs are, however, are not bound to release the players as the Asian Games did not fall in the FIFA international match window.
Football competition in Asian Games is basically under-23 affair with three over-aged players permitted per team.
This will be Chhetri’s third Asian Games, the first being the 2006 edition as a 22-year-old under English coach Bob Houghton. The team was led by Bhaichung Bhutia, who was included as on the over-aged players. India drew with Hong Kong (1-1), beat Maldives (2-1) and lost to Iran (0-2) to crash out in the group stage.
In the 2014 edition in Incheon, Korea, Chhetri captained India after being included as one of the above-23 players permitted. India again ended their campaign in the group stage after losing to UAE (0-5) and Jordan (0-2).
Chhetri has played for India 142 times and has scored 92 goals, the most by an Indian. He is also currently the third most prolific scorer in international football among active players, behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Meesi.
He recently became a father but despite that he has chosen to travel to China for the Asian Games.
“Chhetri also chose to make the sacrifice of leaving his newborn baby and wife to attend to the call of national duty, it does not happen to too many players,” the AIFF official said.
Chhetri was not in the Indian team that took part in the Kings Cup in Thailand as he needed to be with his wife and newborn baby.
The Indian team, which is expected to leave for China on Saturday, begins its Asian Games campaign with a match against China on September 19, followed by games against Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24).
The top two teams from the six groups will make it to the pre-quarterfinals, with four best-ranked third-placed sides also qualifying.
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
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