Veteran forward Sunil Chhetri will open another memorable chapter in his glorious career when two-time gold medallists India open their campaign in the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou on Tuesday. This time, he will also be making it to the record books, joining an elite list of Indian footballers who have led the country at two Asian Games.
Chettri will be leading India out onto the field when India take on hosts China in their Group A match at the Huanglong Sports Centre Stadium.
The 39-year-old Chhetri, who led India in the 2014 edition at Incheon, South Korea, will become only the third Indian captain to lead the team in two Asian Games -- joining the likes of Sailen Manna (1951 and 1954) and Bhaichung Bhutia (2002 and 2006) on the special list.
India won the gold medals at home in New Delhi in the inaugural edition in 1951 and then in 1962 at Jakarta, beating South Korea 2-1 in the final. China won a silver medal (1994) and two bronze (1978 & 1998).
When India took on Indonesia in the first round of the 1951 Asian Games in Delhi, perhaps nobody realised it would be the start of a very special relationship between Indian football and the continental games. Two golds and one bronze medal later,
As India gear up to play their 57th match at the Asian Games, the first in nine years, Chhetri and Sandesh Jhingan, who were part of the Incheon 2014 squad, know exactly how different of a deal Asian Games football is.
While six teams participated in the inaugural games in New Delhi, Hangzhou will have 21 participants battling for the podium. Besides India and China, Bangladesh and Myanmar are the other teams in Group A, with the top two sides and four best third-placed teams progressing to the round of 16.
The stakes too have risen manyfold -- with huge expectations, the players are not playing for the national team but representing the entire nation.
Facing the hosts in the first game is always a great challenge. Matches in Group A will come thick and fast, with clashes against neighbours Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24) next in line.
Head coach Igor Stimac said the team can't afford to take time to settle down.
"There is no reason to waste time now. We need to focus on what can be done in the next two days until the kick-off to do everything possible within our power to open the tournament with a good fight. And very importantly, we need to prepare the wide picture of the tournament because we have three games. I am going to ask the players to play to the best of their abilities, and I will try to help them achieve that," said Stimac.
Sharing his thoughts on the Chinese team, the Croatian said, "They have been preparing this team for a long time. Since March this year, they've played four tough and good-quality games against strong opponents, losing three and winning one. Mostly they prefer a 4-4-2 system, which might change to a 3-4-3 occasionally.
"They have three senior players who are really important to them. So, it will be tough because they've invested a lot in this team, especially because they are hosting the Asian Games.
"No tournament is a formality for me, neither the players. There is a possibility to qualify from the group, but to do that, some luck needs to be on our side also, and the goal is for the boys to give their best performances of their lives," Stimac added.