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Interview: Sunil Chhetri on his foreign stints, Bengaluru FC, and the rise of Indian football

Oliver McManus gets the chance to speak with Bengaluru FC and Indian national team captain, Sunil Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri is a man who I first heard about 5 years ago when I read an article on his move to Sporting Lisbon, very much a pioneer for Indian football. Over the years he’s been described as everything from “naturally gifted” to “Asia’s greatest ever footballer” – high praise, indeed.

When he agreed to speak to me recently, after India defeat Macau 4-1, I jumped on the opportunity to hear his fascinating tale; 55 goals at international level is not to be sniffed at and puts him in the Top 25 of all-time, level with Jan Koller and above the likes of Wayne Rooney  and Edin Dzeko.

I’ll stop blabbering, let’s get cracking with the interview.

Sunil, a delight to talk to you,  I think we should probably start off right at the beginning; when did you first get into football and at what point did you think you could be good enough to be professional?

That’s a tough one to begin with. To be very honest, I cannot put my finger on the moment I realised that I could turn pro. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was playing in the country’s top division and doing decently well!

Your mother and her twin sisters played for the Nepal women’s national team, I believe, so is it fair to say you were pretty much always destined to be a footballer?

I’m not sure if destined is the right word but it did make things a lot easier when I chose to turn professional. My father too played for the Army teams and all conversations around the dinner table were about the game. It became a part of my upbringing and soon, my career. My parents have been my pillars, never once chasing me to focus on books once they saw what the sport meant to me. The signs were more than evident!

And you started your professional career with Mohun Bagan back in 2002 with your first three seasons yielding 8 goals from 18 league games; were you pleased to be able to settle into the league so quickly?

Absolutely. I was a young lad with no pressure of any sort and that helped. I had too many big names around me who were the focus of the fans and media alike. It helped me grind and dig my heels in and I am glad I didn’t struggle settling in.

Let’s skip forward a bit to when you won the I-League in 2009-10, your first domestic silverware. When you look at all the other trophies you’ve won in your career is that perhaps the sweetest purely because it was the first?

My sweetest accolades are always my last ones.  But you could call the first I-League trophy win special, if not the sweetest. Dempo was a fantastic experience in my career and it would have been a shame to leave the club without winning the League.

Following that you signed for Kansas City Wizards in the MLS. So how thrilled were you to get a big opportunity like that and, secondly, do you have any regrets given the way everything turned out?

Regrets, none. Lessons, many. It was alien territory to me and while it did get frustrating to train all week and then start on the bench over the weekend, the stint taught me so much about mental toughness. There were so many aspects of my game that I worked on while I was there in a bid to adapt and if anything, the experience left me a lot richer. Although, I do wish I had more game time. But that’s football.

Indeed it wasn’t your only foreign adventure because Sporting Lisbon approached you in 2012 to play for their reserve team – which had previously produced the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo – to follow in his footsteps and to create history in the process. In a weird way could this be one of your proudest achievements?

Not really. Football has been kind enough to give me enough and more reasons to be proud and more importantly, grateful for. Just like Kansas, the stint at Sporting too taught me so much. To be able to train with some very gifted players every day at world class facilities was an education to say the least.

Since you returned to India you’ve had a stellar career with Bengaluru FC in the I-League and Mumbai City in the ISL. Are you happy to have managed to settle down and avoid the constant transfer chatter?

Bengaluru FC has been a very special chapter in my career, one that I’m still not done writing. I just signed a three-year extension over the four years I’ve spent here and it’s the longest I have ever been with any club which should tell you about my relationship with the club.

In 2016 Bengaluru became the first Indian club to reach the AFC Cup final and given that you’ve done that once do you now feel as though this can be a stepping stone onto better things?

It sure can. We’re on the brink of another final and that should tell you all you need to know about us and things getting better. We’ve done well in the League and the Cup, winning them two times each. And we’ve consistently performed well against the best in Asia. Remember, we are only four years old as a club and that kind of consistency is special to say the least.

And we should point out that over the past 15 years since you turned professional, Indian football has changed quite drastically. How do you feel the game has improved in that time?

In the Indian context, so much has changed. But so much more needs to change. And I’m really grateful that I’ve been around to be part of that change. People are so much more aware about Indian football and maybe it’s the digital space that can take credit for that. But we are in the middle of a very good time in Indian football – the Under-17 World Cup has come home, the senior team has qualified for the AFC Asian Cup in 2019 and Bengaluru FC are a two-goal win away from a second consecutive AFC Cup final *. Suddenly, it all seems to be happening here!

As captain of the Indian national football team how are you finding that leadership role? Is it nice to give guidance to some of the younger players coming through?

It’s always been an honour to have that armband strapped around but it’s never determined how much more or less I give the team. When I started out I had a fantastic bunch of seniors to look up to who genuinely handed out advice that helped. And it feels good to be able to pass that on.

You’ve got an interesting relationship with Stephen Constantine, there’s definitely an air of excitement surrounding the future for Indian football isn’t there?

There surely is an air of excitement. The Under-17 World Cup is underway and there’s been a fair bit of buzz in the country. The senior team is on track to qualify for the Asian Cup and Bengaluru FC is a two-goal difference away from a second consecutive AFC Cup final. While there is a long way to go, it’s encouraging to see so much going on.

Internationally you’ve got 54 goals from 94 matches, 1 more than Wayne Rooney, 1 less than Romario. There’s still a few more years left in you, what are you aiming to achieve before you retire?

It’s nice to part of a list with names like those. But I’ve never played for milestones and that won’t change. I want to win everything I’m competing for and that’s as simple as a target as it gets.

Finally, from me, when you hang up your boots and look back on your career what’s the one thing you’re going to look back with sheer delight and happiness?

I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint your search for a great answer here! I’m going to be around for long enough to not spend time right now thinking about what life will be like when I hang up my boots.

I think we can all agree that Sunil Chhetri is an absolutely wonderful man, polite and charming and not too shabby a footballer. My thanks to Kunaal Majgaonkar for helping organise the interview, to Sunil himself for taking time out to answer my questions despite being shattered and the best of luck to him and Bengaluru for the rest of the season!

* Note: This interview was taken before the second leg of the AFC Inter-Zonal Final. Bengaluru FC lost the tie with a 3-2 aggregate score against FC Istiklol of Tajikistan

Oliver McManus

Oliver McManus

Oliver is a Tottenham fan, a former player for Herne Bay and currently studying for his Level 3 Diploma. His proudest footballing moment is when Brad Fridel touched his shoulder.
Oliver McManus

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