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MUMBAI (Reuters) - India's hopes of developing as a soccer-playing nation are reliant on regular participation in tournaments like the Asian Cup, captain Sunil Chhetri told Reuters.
Chhetri will be hoping to lead India to the 2019 Asian Cup finals in the United Arab Emirates after the world's second-most populous nation missed out on the last edition of the tournament in Australia two years ago.
India, who have only reached the finals on three previous occasions, have been drawn alongside Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Macau in Group A of the last round of qualifiers, with the top two teams advancing to the expanded tournament.
The Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) decision to increase the number of finalists from 16 to 24 has given the country a better chance of qualifying and Chhetri believes it is an opportunity India should not pass up.
"To be honest, we should be playing at the Asian Cup every time. That's the parameter we need to use to judge if we are doing well or not," Chhetri said in an interview.
"We have to keep playing in the Asian Cup which will mean rubbing shoulders with the best in the region. You know the quality you are playing against and then you know how much you have improved."
Cricket-loving India may have a population of 1.3 billion but it is a massive under-achiever as far as soccer is concerned, with the national side 130th in the FIFA rankings and yet to make a single appearance at the World Cup finals.
A quick glance at India's group opponents shows that Kyrgyzstan are ranked six places above them, Myanmar are 159th and Macau are a further 25 places adrift, yet Chhetri is refusing to read too much into those numbers.
"As far as our hopes are concerned, I have played enough to understand that you cannot think about the chances yet," India's most-capped player with 92 appearances said.
"The way the rankings work is if you do well in the last six-to-eight months, your ranking can rise to an extent that you can't even imagine," he added.
"That's why when I face teams in Asia, I don't look too much into rankings. (Qualification) is not going to be easy."
India, who did qualify for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil but withdrew ahead of the tournament, open the final round of Asian Cup qualifiers away to Myanmar in Yangon on March 28.
In the past, India coach Stephen Constantine has spoken of giving opportunities to youngsters to create a bigger pool of talent for the national side but Chhetri, also the country's most prolific scorer with 52 goals, prefers continuity.
"If you ask me, I would love to have a stable 11 or a stable 14," the 32-year-old said. "It's a personal thing. If the team keeps changing then everything has to keep changing.
"But we will only have a stable 11 if the players take their chances and make the spots their own."
Chhetri is also an advocate of leading by example on the pitch as the best lesson a captain can give his team mates to earn their respect and develop bonds.
"I have been a youngster and I know speeches are boring," Chhetri said, adding that the first thing he does after learning India's opponents was to check their recent match statistics.
"If I do the right things on and off the field that's how a player is going to learn.
"I was also a junior and I know how you learn from seniors, that's how you follow. Speeches don't work."
Editing by John O'Brien