Asian Games: Sunil Chhetri Prioritizes National Duty Over Club Commitments

Football tournament in the Asian Games is mostly for under-23 players, with three over-age players allowed per side. 

Sunil Chhetri will lead the Indian men's football team at the Asian Games

Indian football lost the club versus country debate at the Hangzhou Asian Games, but Sunil Chhetri, probably the country's best footballer ever, rose above all of this and prioritised national duty. 

After many Indian Super League clubs refused to release their players, the 39-year-old talisman, who has set insurmountable national records in his 18-year international career, raised his voice and volunteered to head a ragtag national squad. 

Thirteen players from the original 22-man roster, including vital defender Sandesh Jhingan and number one custodian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, were not released by their respective ISL clubs.

After frantic negotiations, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) was able to put together a second-tier 18-member team comprised primarily of inexperienced players, with Chhetri the lone prominent 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."

Bengaluru FC, Chhetri's club, had six players in the initial 22, including Gurpreet, and released two players, the other 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 not required to release the players, however, because the Asian Games did not fall within the FIFA international match window.

Football tournament in the Asian Games is mostly for under-23 players, with three over-age players allowed per side. 

This will be Chhetri's third Asian Games, having competed in his first as a 22-year-old under English coach Bob Houghton in 2006. Bhaichung Bhutia led the team and was one of the over-aged players. India finished the group stage after drawing with Hong Kong (1-1), beating Maldives (2-1), and losing to Iran (0-2).

Chhetri captained India in the 2014 edition in Incheon, Korea, after being selected as one of the above-23 players permitted. India's campaign was cut short in the group stage after losses to the UAE (0-5) and Jordan (0-2). 

Chhetri has played 142 times for India and scored 92 goals, the highest by an Indian. He is also the third most prolific international football scorer among active players, trailing only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Even though he has recently become a parent, he has opted to fly 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 did not travel with the Indian squad to Thailand for the King's Cup because he needed to be with his wife and newborn baby. 

The Indian team, which is scheduled to depart for China on Saturday, will kick off its Asian Games campaign against China on September 19, followed by games against Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24). 

The top two teams from each of the six groups will go to the pre-quarterfinals, with the top four third-placed teams also qualifying.

(With PTI inputs)