Sunil Chhetri becomes the first Indian to join a major European football club. Aabhas Sharma talks to him about his big leap
For an Indian footballer to get an opportunity to play for a well-known European club might be a daunting prospect. But not for Sunil Chhetri, who will play for the reserve team of Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon. Chhetri doesn’t think that just because he plays for a country where the standard of football isn’t that high, he can’t make an impact. “This is a great opportunity for me and I will do my best to prove that I can play at that level,” he says. Although he doesn’t say whether he will be playing for the reserve team or not, the club’s website stated that he has been signed to play in the second division of Portuguese league for the B team. If Chhetri does well for the B team he has every chance of stepping up to play for the first team as well.
Chhetri is a confident man and doesn’t let setbacks hold him down. His ill-fated spell with US-based football club Kansas City is one such example. Even when things didn’t go according to plan in Kansas, he never believed that he had blown his chance. Chhetri had signed a four-year deal with the club but came back after a few months. He says that it was a learning curve and as a professional footballer, he learns something new every day. “It was a different experience for me,” he says. “It was challenging and I do have regrets of not making the most of it.”
After Baichung Bhutia’s retirement in 2011, the mantle of taking Indian football forward fell on Chhetri’s shoulders. Bhutia might not have made an impact on foreign shores but he was the poster boy of Indian football for more than 15 years.
Ever since Chhetri burst on the scene in 2004 as a lively teenager with a knack for scoring goals, he has been burdened with expectations. “I am glad people look up to me to perform and I don’t feel additional pressure,” he says. In fact, pressure is something which he enjoys and says that it brings out the best in him. Chhetri was a studio guest on Ten Sports for the Champions League matches and came across as quite articulate, someone who understood the technical aspects of the game.
Football, especially European football, in India has been steadily gaining popularity among football fans with fans of clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona growing in the country. The Portuguese league doesn’t get much attention or for that matter TV coverage in India. With Chhetri’s signing, things will change as will the commercial interest in Sporting Lisbon.
Chhetri is unfazed by talk of this being a “marketing” move than a sporting move. “It’s good if a club like Sporting Lisbon is looking at India and if my signing for them inspires young children to take up football, then I will be more than happy,” he says.
Chhetri has played for clubs like Mohan Bagan and the now defunct clubs JCT Phagwara and Mahindra United. Twenty-eight is not the ideal age for a footballer to get his big “break” but Chhetri says that he feels like a 14-year-old who has been given a chance to live his dream. “I know it’s a big step for me but I will work hard and not let anyone down who has ever shown faith in me,” he says.
Whether Chhetri manages to make that transition from reserve team to the first team remains to be seen. But just to be a part of the club which has produced players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo should do him and Indian football a lot of good.