Sunil Chhetri: India's U17 kids 'battle-ready' after playing future Messis, Neymars

Sunil Chhetri said playing in events like the U-17 World Cup gives players great exposure, setting them up well for the future. Faheem Hussain/SPORTZPICS for ISL

On the eve of the 15th anniversary of his international debut, Indian captain Sunil Chhetri pointed to one major change in Indian football: The top-level opportunities provided to youth players in the form of the Under-17 World Cup. The players who took part in the men's tournament in India in 2017 are battle-ready, he felt, while those who will play in the women's tournament in February 2021 will similarly benefit.

"We already saw what hosting it did for the country's boys. I meet these boys -- one of them, Suresh [Wangjam] is in my team -- they are so confident. Amarjit [Kiyam] is one of my favourites. Narender [Gehlot] is doing so well," Chhetri told AIFF Media's Facebook handle on Thursday. "It's just because of so much exposure they had. Playing the next Neymars or Messis of the world. They had so many friendlies against the top teams of the world. This is what is going to happen to the girls. It just sets the bar, sets them up so well for the future."

Chhetri, who made his India debut against Pakistan in Quetta on June 12, 2005, is also the only Indian man to have started matches at two Asian Cup finals, in 2011 and 2019. He spoke of the need for the women's team to start training in earnest for the 2022 edition, which was recently awarded to India. The 2022 Asian Cup serves as the Asian qualifier for the FIFA Women's World Cup -- an event India have never qualified for -- in 2023. Asian Cup runners-up in 1979 and 1983, the India women have not gotten past the group stages since, and haven't qualified for the competition proper since 2003.

"Girls, start training from now. Last thing you want is to feel after the tournament, 'I wish I had done more'. Everything -- your touch, your scoring or saving ability, your fat percentage, your sprint -- prepare from now," said Chhetri. "It's going to be a different level. You will be playing the best in Asia. Make sure you leave no stone unturned. Once you are prepared fully, just go there and express yourself. At the end of the day, we started playing football because we loved it."

With the 2022 Women's Asian Cup, India would have hosted three big tournaments across the men's and women's game in a span of five years, and Chhetri emphasised the importance of such events. "[It] helps in getting more sponsors, more government support. It's also important for the boys and girls, [to learn] about what to do," said Chhetri. "Suresh already knows what to do. What to eat and how to train. The same goes for players like Rahul [KP] or Amarjit. It's not easy, but they are doing it because of the exposure. I am looking forward to the U-17 World Cup and the Asia Cup. I'm sure all the girls are excited."

When his India teammate Sandesh Jhingan joined the live session and joked about working out a new attacking routine from corners for the 2026 World Cup, Chhetri revealed that it was a "small secret" between the two of them. "Even after a lot of training -- all our set pieces are rehearsed -- Sandesh and I will have this little eye contact. Even if there are no major changes, there are these small nooks we do, and I do a decoy for him, and he does [it] for me. We've been successful," he said. "I don't know about 2026, because that is too far, but till the time I am there, we'll keep working on our small secret -- our attacking corners.

"Even if I am in the stands watching, I would love to see Sandesh Jhingan going for a header, with [Anirudh] Thapa crossing the ball at the World Cup. That's a dream that me and the whole team share."