Since Bhaichung Bhutia hung up his boots, Sunil Chhetri has seamlessly moved in to become the country’s leading personality on the footballing sphere. Earlier this week, he became the leading Indian goal-scorer in league football to go with his existing record as top-scorer of India’s national team. The fact that he surpassed Bhutia to reach the landmarks, underscores their impact on the game in India.
For Chhetri who is 32, more goals are obviously on the mind, but more than anything, he is in search of someone who can quickly overcome his tally of 90 goals.
“Obviously, I would like to keep scoring a lot more,” Chhetri said. “But, yes I hope someone surpasses my tally. What it’ll mean is, if someone breaks this record, he will score for the national team also. If Bhaichung would have been asked about it, would he want someone else to break his record he would have said the same thing. Now I have more goals than him in the league and it has all helped contribute towards India,” he said.
Searching for the next Chhetri
After Chhetri and Bhutia, the next highest Indian goal-scorer in league football is Abhishek Yadav with 40 goals. By contrast, international players such as Ranti Martins and Odafa Onyeka Okolie have scored over 150 goals in the I-League apiece.
“Apart from I, Bhaichung, Jeje (Lalpekhlua) there are not many who have played games day in day out. Most teams play with two foreign strikers, Which Indian striker can you think of who plays every other day. Robin Singh has just started getting opportunities to start. But, definitely we need more Indian strikers into games, because the gap is huge,” Chhetri lamented.
Asked if he felt Indian football was headed in the right direction, Chhetri said the roadmap being prepared by the All India Football Federation for the future of Indian football was not clear, stating that it was “difficult” for players to stay motivated with the looming uncertainty.
‘Players need to stick together’
“It is difficult. We had a meeting of the Football Players Association of India. It is difficult. We (players) need to stick together. What the AIFF in collaboration with ISL, I-League decide is not in our hands. But, if we the players stick together will matter. If we come together then they will have take our voice and only then what we say will be important. We all want a clear road-map. It is not there right now, but I hope all the big think tanks are doing their job and we will see what the future holds.”
Since making his debut in 2002, Chhetri has been at the centre of India’s footballing progress, both in the league system as well as the national team. His Bengaluru and India teammates call him “bhai” and its no surprise that he is kept on a pedestal when Indian players speak about him.
With the FPAI, Chhetri has chosen to take the lead and is at the centre of the movement. But, when on the field, he prefers to focus on the game at hand and not delve too much into the aura that is created around him, at least in the Indian football fraternity. With most senior players phasing out of the national team over the past decade, Chhetri alongside Subrata Pal has become the one on whom most players look towards for guidance. To his credit, Chhetri has played the part to the T, but prefers to adopt a cautious approach while treading along the thin line that separates a captain from a teammate.
“In football, you can turn from a hero to villain instantly. My 90th goal was followed by a missed penalty that robbed us of all three points. May be its my age, nobody said anything to me. I am sure they would have liked to abuse me. But the beauty of the game is that one always gets a chance to make amends in two-three days.”
Does the added responsibility weight down the seasoned player?
“As a senior player I try not to think of it too much. As a person of seniority the one thing that has changed is that one cannot falter. When I was young I could take risks. As you grow older, especially when you become captain, you have to lead by example, be the first on the ground, eat right, sleep well. That is what I do and that’s how people follow. As soon as you start lecturing, that is when people don’t follow. That is the example that players like Bhaichung set for us. They showed us the way. It is what we try to do.”
‘We should not take Asian Cup draw lightly’
India have been drawn alongside Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Macau in the qualifying stages of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, a draw that many believe is favourable towards India, Chhetri though feels India would do well to not get complacent.
“It would be a huge mistake if we considered this as a favourable draw. We have always been handed tough draws in the past so that is why people will assume this time it will be easier. But that is not the case,” he said.
“Myanmar outplayed us and beat us 1-0 the last time we faced them. Kyrgyzstan are doing really well and we don’t even know anything about Macau,” he added.
Chhetri insisted that all the players who are called up would need to be at the top of their game, and fit enough to hit the ground running.
“Whoever the gaffer (coach Stephen Constantine) selects for the qualifiers, I hope they report to the national camp in the best shape possible. Especially in our case and that of the Mohun Bagan players, we have AFC Cup commitments so we will be playing a match every 3-4 days. I just hope no one gets injured because we need our full strength team at Myanmar.”