With Indian national football team currently ranking 97th in the FIFA World Ranking and 15th in Asia, captain Sunil Chhetri strongly believes the ranking won't matter much if India doesn't play international matches away from home ahead of the upcoming AFC Asian Cup tournament.
According to Chhetri, India require the best of preparations to make it count in the January 5 to February 1 event in the United Arab Emirates next year. In the last edition of the mega event in 2011, India crashed out of the group stage after losing all their matches with big margins.
India have never won the AFC Asian cup and have come closest to being runners-up where they lost to Israel in 1964. Chhetri says that the team must be at their level best and put up a fight if they want to make it to the knockout rounds.
"Do not be mistaken if it's Thailand, Bahrain and UAE, cause It's all a different ballgame. Just because we haven't met Australia or Korea, it doesn't mean that it's going to be easy. Thailand is the most improved nation in the last six years and are now competing with the best in Asia. The important thing for us is that how are we going to prepare right now, because we have to be at our level best and put up a fight at the group stage," Chhetri told India TV in an exclusive interview.
"I'm really happy about the results so far (13-game unbeaten run) but I don't take the ranking seriously. I'm worried about the games we are going to play away as our home record has been good, but away we have struggled. We need to be prepared and test ourselves before the tournament begins," the Indian football skipper added.
Chhetri believes that the kids are the future and can take up the mantle that has been brought down since the dawn of football in India. Ever since the FIFA U-17 World Cup that was hosted in India last year, the sport has caught on rapidly and has influenced the youth of today to step up and have a crack.
The 33-year-old striker was present at an event where the official sponsor of the 2018 FIFA World Cup - KIA Motors - had presented an initiative through which two young children would represent the country as the official match-ball carriers in the biggest stage of the sport, which will be held in Russia starting in June. The India football captain believes that it's one of the most amazing feats to witness.
To all the children who were present and taking part in the campaign, Chhetri spoke to them and imparted his knowledge with the kids, saying that he envies the children who would get to witness the biggest footballing nations clash in the big stage.
"The message to all the kids is to just behave and a vision in life. I was happy when I heard about the campaign, two Indian children are going to be a part as the official ball match carrier in the World Cup. I don't think this has happened before and it's a great initiative and whoever gets to go to Russia, remember you are not representing your parents or your state but the whole country."
Coming to the matters on the national football team, the skipper feels that the players cannot take their opponents lightly and should not underestimate them at the AFC Asian Cup. India have been clubbed with Thailand, UAE and Bahrain in group A and will begin their campaign from December onwards.
Chhetri feels that the Indian team must work hard if they are to achieve results and they must slog it out.
"Our main motive is to be something good in Asia and we are 15th. The first five teams in Asia play in the World Cup. Our realistic dream is to be in the first 10, we made the right steps and direction, our pace is slow, but we will work hard to get there. It's far but we are moving in the right direction."
On being asked on the comparison between the previous team that played in the AFC Asian Cup and now, the skipper believes that experience can count as an advantage amongst a young team.
"In 2011, we had an established team, where all the senior's players were present and youngsters like I, Stephen and Anwar. We were a set team. The difference between us now and then is we have a lot of youngsters coming in and are quite dynamic. Everyone wants a place in the team and I just hope they grab the chances when it comes."
India were left bruised and battered in their previous Asian cup as they came back without a win in the group stage. With times changing at a rapid pace, the skipper has warned his players not to underestimate the teams in the group they have been allotted to.
A new and improved Indian football team, under the guidance of coach Stephen Constantine, aims to prepare themselves before being put to the test.
"Stephen Constantine is a great coach. His formations are different, and he keeps encouraging young players to grab chances. He came at a time when the senior players left but has helped change the game for India," he concluded.