Bengaluru, September 13: Eight years is a long time in football or any sport for that matter and Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri would be the first to admit that.
The talismanic striker was relatively a greenhorn when India last figured in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup - the 2011 edition held in Doha.
Back then India endured a miserable outing in the Qatari capital losing all the matches they played --- against eventual runners-up Australia, Middle East powerhouse Bahrain and Asian giants South Korea - and crashing out of the group stage, though Chhetri did enhance his growing reputation by scoring two goals.
In the subsequent edition held in Australia four years later which the hosts won, India failed to make the cut.
Now they are returning back to the continental quadrennial extravaganza after an eight-year gap on the back of a strong qualification campaign which saw them winning 13 games in a row, with Chhetri virtually leading from the front.
Earned our right to battle against Asia’s best and what better place to do it than at the Fortress. Happy,proud,relieved and more. pic.twitter.com/a4DkDJCCNK— Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) October 11, 2017
Come 2019, Chhetri will lead India at the 17th AFC Asian Cup to be held from January 5 to February 1 at eight venues in the UAE and the captain cool believes the team has come a long way from what it was eight years ago.
"Back then we had never been on such a big stage and it didn't help to face Australia, South Korea and Bahrain. We gave our best but I think we were a bit overwhelmed," Chhetri was quoted as saying in an interview with AFC website.
As the 17th edition of the tournament for continental supremacy nears, Chhetri believes the team has the ability to compete with the best.
"If we compare ourselves with the other Asian countries then we fall short, but if we compare with what we were 15 years back then I think we have made huge strides.
"But because we're chasing the bigger teams then we can't be happy or satisfied, we have to keep our heads down and keep improving," Chhetri, who also leads the Indian Super League (ISL) outfit Bengaluru FC added.
In the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, India are drawn in Group A along with the hosts, familiar foes Bahrain and Thailand. For the first time since its inception since 1956, the tournament will have 24 teams in the fray.
India begin their campaign on January 6 against Thailand at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi and Chhetri sounded upbeat at the prospect of leading India in the continental competition for the first time.
"It's an honour and a privilege to captain my country; I've been playing for my country for the past 12 years and it's been brilliant," said Chhetri, who is India's all-time joint top scorer with Pradip Kumar Banerjee, having scored 65 goals from 102 international appearances.
"We are about to play the AFC Asian Cup and it's a huge responsibility that I'm really looking forward to. Now, personally, I think I'll be calmer because I think I'm more mature. I've experienced the tournament and I can help my juniors go over there and stay calm.
"We've to work hard to make sure qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup becomes normal for us and we don't feel how we did in 2011," Chhetri concluded.
(With inputs from AFC media)