It will be humongous when India qualify for the World Cup: Sunil Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri’s eyes light up and a broad grin spreads across his face as he considers the prospect of India making history and qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for the first time.

The Indian team’s road to the 2026 edition of FIFA World Cup in Canada, Mexico, and USA begins in November 2023, with the expanded 48-team tournament offering greater opportunities to teams in all confederations, with eight direct spots available to AFC nations and a further place open via the FIFA Play-Off Tournament.

“When that happens, the country will go mad. As an Indian, it’s going to be one of the best days of my life. I have so many dreams about that day. It is going to be humongous. The anticipation, the hope that it will bring to the complete nation is something that I know I will never forget in my life. There are so many people like me who can’t wait to see that day, and I just hope it comes soon for us,” said Sunil Chhetri to FIFA.

Chhetri, who holds both the all-time goalscoring and caps records for India, will remain an integral part of their latest attempt to reach the global showpiece, a feat which the world’s second-most populous nation has yet to achieve.

The first step on that road comes in round two of AFC qualifying, where India have been drawn in Group A and will come up against 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, Kuwait and Afghanistan, who saw off Mongolia over two legs in round one.

To progress to the third round, from which six of the AFC’s eight direct qualification spots will be decided, the Blue Tigers need to finish in the top two of their four-team section, with the first of six games coming with an away tie against Kuwait on November 16.

“When I dream, I dream more as an Indian, more as a fan. Me being there in any capacity, it doesn’t matter, because I know I’ll be a fan. I’ll be watching every game that India plays and rooting for my country.

“Because I’m 39, I don’t have long-term targets as far as me being on the pitch is concerned. I think about the next three months, and then the next three months, and then we see how it goes.

“Right now, I feel really good physically. I can see that I do contribute to the team, both for my country and my club. As long as I’m enjoying it, I will be here. I don’t know how many days, how many months, how many years that will be. The day I stop enjoying, and the day I can’t contribute, I will be done.

“I’m just happy that I’m here. This is the bonus period, I’m just enjoying it, I don’t know when it’s going to end. I just want to enjoy it.”

India, who currently stand 102nd on the FIFA/Coca-Cola Men’s World Ranking, are coached by Igor Stimac. The former defender helped Croatia upset the odds and reach the France 1998 semi-finals, going down 2-1 to the hosts before claiming bronze with victory over the Netherlands in the third-place play-off.

Chhetri believes that World Cup pedigree is working in India’s favour and feels Stimac, since taking charge in 2019, has provided the ideal foundation and support network for his squad to grow and develop.

“Apart from his technical and tactical knowledge, him being in a similar situation with the Croatia team, and doing something extraordinary and amazing, has helped him understand us a lot,” Chhetri said.

“He is more than a coach, he is more like a father figure – or an elder brother for people like me who are fossils – to everyone. He understands and takes that part of his coaching job very seriously.

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