India captain Sunil Chhetri wants the national football team to play more away games this year as it prepares for the AFC Asian Cup in 2019.
Chhetri, who is currently playing for Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League (ISL), feels each and every player who dons the India colours needs to raise his game by a few notches so that coach Stephen Constantine has a headache while picking the team every time.
"We need to play enough matches away. We generally do well at home, but our away record hasn't been good. We should try to get teams from 16 to 8 (AFC rankings) ranking. It's difficult to play South Korea and Japan as they don't want to play us. We should get teams who are better than us and play at their home. This is from the organisation side," Chhetri told IANS in an interview.
"From the players' side, we need to improve ourselves individually, making sure that the competition for the national team increases and it is a big headache for the coach. It should be tough for him to choose the players and whenever that happens he gets the cream," the 33-year-old said.
India qualified for the Asian Cup by beating Macau in the qualifiers last year in October.
The last time India played in the world's second-oldest continental football championship was in 2011 under British coach Bob Houghton. Chhetri was an integral part of the team, scoring two goals in the group stages in what was only India's third appearance.
India did not win a match and bowed out, letting in 13 goals and scoring just three.
Chhetri said India should look to play teams like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who are also hosting the Asian Cup, on the road.
"We are at the bottom, man. Whoever we get is going to be better than us," Chhetri said when asked to name the teams they should play friendlies with leading up to the tournament, starting in January next year.
"In 2011, we got No 1, No 3 and No 5 -- Australia, South Korea, Bahrain (in the main round). It couldn't have been worse than that mathematically. This time we got Kyrgyzstan, Macau and Myanmar (in the qualifiers). With due respect to them it wasn't very difficult.
"We should aim to play the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Palestine and Lebanon (in the friendlies)," Chhetri said.
There are talks of a four-nation Champions Cup taking place this year in India. Chhetri said the tourney would have no bearing on India's rankings as it is outside the FIFA dates, but the match practice would do a world of good to India's preparations.
"Now it's not about the rankings, because we have qualified. Having said that, the arrangements of the groups matter in terms of ranking but keeping all these things aside, playing at home those three-four nation tournament...I hope we get better teams to play against," he said.
Coming to his club Bengaluru FC, which is at the top of the ISL standings now, Chhetri said it doesn't have the pressure of expectations and takes one game at a time.
"The motto in our club is to think about the next game -- the way we won two Federation Cups and the I-League by taking one game at a time. The motto has not changed," he said.
Just married to long-time girlfriend Sonam, daughter of former India and Mohun Bagan defender Subrata Bhattacharya, Chhetri signed off tongue-in-cheek, saying he now knows the prices of "onions and tomatoes".
"The last 10-15 days after marriage... I have enjoyed my time. I think me and Sonam have seen each other for 13 years but we never lived with each other. She was always a tourist wherever I played. Now living together, it's nice, man. More because, apart from the fact that she is my wife and I love her... we are also very good friends," he said.
"She understands my job. So there was no need of telling her that I have to come back and sleep and take a nap... everything is nice because she understands. Later in the evening we watch Netflix. We go for walks. We went to buy grocery the other day and I realised I haven't taken walks for a long time. I know the rates of onions and tomatoes now (laughs)."
(Debayan Mukherjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)