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Scoring big

Pic by Rupinder Sharma

It was a bad season for Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri. About 18 months ago his career was in the dumps and going nowhere rapidly. He was jobless and without a team to play for, even though he had an impressive scoring record of 33 goals in 58 matches for India. The country’s top teams had put their squads together and were unwilling to make him an offer. And his efforts to head off to foreign shores had also come to naught.

“Yes, they were difficult times,” says Chhetri, coming off the field after a hard training session at Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium. What had gone wrong was that he had a lucrative four-year deal with a US football club, the Kansas City Wizards, but had been called back by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) for the 2011 Asia Cup in January. Says Chhetri: “I didn’t know that the Kansas City Wizards has a procedure by which you had to re-sign deals in January. But my commitment to my country is foremost and so the deal automatically fell through. It was a major disappointment.”

But lady luck has smiled on Chhetri once again — in a big way. He has just signed up to play with one of the world’s great football teams, Sporting Club de Portugal and he will be donning the famous green and white jersey to play in the Portuguese second division known as the Liga de Honra. Popularly known as Sporting Lisbon, the club has been the training ground for great players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo. “My agent had been trying various clubs. The talks had been in the pipeline for the last three months. After several rounds of talks and watching me play on YouTube they finally took me on.”

India’s top footballer had first caught the eye of the Portuguese team’s talent-spotters when he travelled to Lisbon some years ago. But, for a variety of reasons the deal didn’t quite go through until recently (by the time this article appears, Chhetri will already be in Portugal as the season would have started on July 15). The Portuguese are reckoned to be one of the world’s best footballing nations.

Sunil Chhetri was one of the Arjuna Award winners last year. The young footballer will don the famous green and white jersey to play in the Portuguese second division, Liga de Honra

Chhetri is unperturbed by the challenges ahead. “I don’t have anything to lose,” he says. “I know I am going from a country which is 163rd in the world to one which is among the top five. The difference between me and them is huge but it doesn’t unnerve me.”

Initially, Chhetri has been drafted into the team’s second division. Based on his performance, the club will take a call on whether he should be fast-tracked into the main squad. “Apart from the 25 players in the main team, they put the rest of their players in the second division. My plan would be to play to the best of my abilities and see if I can match their expectations.”

There are plenty of sceptics who say that the Portuguese team has signed on Chhetri as part of its marketing strategy because it wants to score big in the Indian market. Sporting Lisbon has also joined hands with the All India Football Federation to help develop Indian football. Chhetri admits that there’s a marketing angle to his hiring. “I won’t deny the marketing side to it. The Portuguese regard India as one of the booming markets and want to penetrate it. But I want to prove that my deal is not a marketing gimmick. I want to prove that I can survive there.”

For the time being, Chhetri has signed only a one-year deal with the club and he has his reasons well in place. “I don’t want people to say, ‘look he is here because of the club’s marketing promotions, let him warm the bench, he will get the money anyway’. After nine years of playing, money is the last thing I look at. I have made my money, got everything I ever desired and my family is financially sound. Now I am looking to become a better player.”

Older Indian footballers are upbeat about Chhetri’s move to Portugal and say it will help Indian football. Says former Indian star footballer I.M. Vijayan: “Whether he makes it to the main team doesn’t bother me. I think it’s a huge thing for our country and will open the floodgates for our youth.”

Success has never been a cakewalk for Chhetri. The Indian forward has had his near misses and goal- upsets over the years. In 2008, Chhetri was called by Coventry FC, a second-division English team, for a 15-day trial, but because of his club commitments with East Bengal the deal stalled.

Later, in 2009, he signed up with Queens Park Rangers, who were then in the Championship division in England, but the deal fell through because he couldn’t get a work permit. “I still remember it was on the eve of the Nehru Cup final when my agent broke the news to me,” says Chhetri. “I was heart-broken and depressed. I just drove aimlessly around Delhi for hours. It was bad.”

Then, in 2011, Scottish Premier League champions, Glasgow Rangers invited Chhetri and fellow national teammate Jeje Lalpekhlua for trials but they couldn’t get visas for Hamburg where they had to play a match. Says Chhetri: “Luckily, the failures and rejections have not given way to frustration because the ground reality is I am from a country which is 163rd in the world. I have no misconceptions but I am hard working and know I will survive.”

K.B. Chhetri, Sunil’s father, reveals how his son would Skype his parents from Kansas City. “We could sense that he was homesick and feeling lonely. I was worried for him.” Chhetri admits it’s difficult to stay away from his family for long periods. “I am used to being surrounded by family and friends but it’s a small price that I have to pay for the opportunities that I have got.”

Baichung Bhutia (left) is the only Indian apart from Chhetri (right) to have had a successful international stint Chhetri helped India lift the South Asian Football Federation Championship cup against Afghanistan last year. Pic by Ramakant Kushwaha

Bhaichung Bhutia, who is the only Indian apart from Chhetri to have had an international stint (at Bury FC, a second division English club), emphasises that it is always tough for an Indian player at a foreign club. “Be it a ‘B’ team or a ‘C’ team, one has to be mentally strong in order to adjust quickly. It’s all in the mind. You have to get used to their playing style, the climate and their techniques. It took me one whole year to adjust to the conditions.”

Armando Colaco, Dempo’s coach with whom Chhetri played for two years (2009-2010) before leaving for Kansas, says he always knew Chhetri would make it big. Says Colaco: “When Chhetri asked me to release him to leave for the Kansas City Wizards I did it keeping in mind his growth as a player.”

Pic by Santosh Ghosh

Similarly, Sukhwinder Singh, his coach at JCT (which has now been disbanded) for three years says: “When I first saw him play I was impressed by his quick footwork, his eagerness to learn fast and his ability to play through both feet. I knew he would go a long way.”

Another of Chhetri’s mentors also praises him. Says Subroto Bhattacharya, coach, Mohun Bagan, with whom Chhetri played his last season in India before leaving for Portugal (he also started his career at the club): “Chhetri has got all the qualities a striker should have. His dribbling, speed and control over the ball are commendable. His chasing abilities and going for the ball at all times is really impressive.”

But he has his critics too. Chhetri faced strong criticism for his inconsistent form on the domestic circuit and there were commentators who believed he was always on the lookout for a move abroad. But the footballer defends his record animatedly: “Last year, I played about 10 league matches and scored five goals, which wasn’t good enough. But go beyond that, I scored seven goals in as many matches for Prayag United, hit 10 goals out of 11 league matches for Dempo, nine goals out of 10 league matches for East Bengal. I am scoring at least one goal per match and I don’t know in which book this is bad.”

His international forays have given him rare opportunities such as sharing the ground with Manchester United greats like Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov and Nani. “This was when Kansas played Manchester United in an international friendly,” says Chhetri.

“Can you imagine, a year ago, my brother and I used to play FIFA — the game on our Playstation with the same set of players. And here I was playing with them for real. I played for about 30 minutes in the second half. I also got to lunch with Nani and met the football greats. It’s all part of the learning curve and helps me make a better person. It all helps you in becoming what you are at the end of the day and I want to walk away satisfied at the end of my career, with my head held high.”