India must have regular competition against the continent’s top sides if they are to have any hope of taking their game to another level, captain Sunil Chhetri has said ahead of next month’s Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
Since their last appearance at the finals in Qatar in 2011, India have played twice against a top-six Asian side when they were grouped with Iran for the Russia World Cup qualifiers.
Chhetri, who will lead India in just their fourth appearance at the finals, said they had to be given the chance to stretch themselves more.
“It’s very, very important for us to keep playing against the big giants – the UAEs, the Australias, the Korea Republics,” Chhetri told FIFA.com.
“It’s one thing to do well against your neighbours, and without demeaning any one of them, it’s a different thing when you go out and play the giants of Asia.”
Cricket-loving India has a population of 1.3 billion but it is a massive underachiever as far as football is concerned. The national side is 97th in the FIFA rankings and yet to make an appearance at the World Cup finals.
The Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) decision to increase the number of finalists at the Asian Cup to 24 teams from 16 has helped the country return to the tournament.
“I was really dejected when we missed out on the last edition,” Chhetri said of the 2015 tournament in Australia.
“I think it’s very, very important for a country like us to keep qualifying for this big tournament, because that tells you where you are and if you’re doing well.
“It also gives you a chance to rub shoulders with the biggest teams in Asia. If you do well, other teams take notice of you.”
India, managed by English coach Stephen Constantine, are in Group A alongside hosts United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Thailand for the Jan. 5-Feb. 1 tournament and Chhetri is under no illusions about the task facing them.
“Without putting ourselves down, when you’re India and you qualify for the Asian Cup any team that you face are going to be difficult,” said Chhetri, India‘s record scorer with 65 goals and their most experienced player with 103 caps.
“In UAE and Thailand we have two teams who are very, very technically gifted. I think even Bahrain are going to be very physical.
“I’m just looking at it as one game at a time. I don’t think we will be thinking about the mathematics of the group from the moment go.”