Sunil Chhetri, a crowd favourite at his new club, Bengaluru FC, is one of India's most popular footballers. The striker attended an event recently, where he announced that club’s fans can now purchase match tickets at select branches of the Cafe Coffee Day chain. The29-year-old spoke to The Hindu about his team's ascent to the top of the I-League points table, his move to Bangalore, the state of the national team and more. Excerpts:
What are your first impressions of Bengaluru FC?
For a new team, we have been doing very well. It is very competitive. You never know who will get to play. We know we have had a good start, but we will not be complacent. This is just the beginning.
As a senior player, is it your role to keep everyone on their toes?
It is not just me, there are others too, especially the gaffer (coach Ashley Westwood). He is our leader. He always reminds us that the previous match is over and done with. All the other teams are quite experienced; they have been around for a long, long time. As a new side, we are quite humble. We are on top, but we must keep playing hard. Having a guy like Ashley really helps, because he will not give us any room to relax.
Compare this club to other clubs you have played - East Bengal, Dempo, Mohun Bagan..
I’ve said this before, this is one of the best clubs I've ever played for. Bengaluru FC treats us well. Everyone stays in the same posh apartment; all the systems are in place; the heart-rate monitors; the recovery drinks - every small thing is taken care of. It makes you feel better about yourself. I think this helps us give our best to the team in return
How would you rate form this season? The give-and-go goal against Rangdajied FC was superb, but there have been a few quiet periods for you on the pitch as well.
I have a different role now, I have to do a lot more defending. Everybody asks me why I have not scored much. Well, I’ve only played three-and-a-half games. I would love to score, but the fact is that I'm playing in a different position. At the end of the day, I’m more focussed on the team winning. As long as we win, I am prepared to play in any position.
We now see you pull back and do some man-marking. Do you enjoy this defensive element?
Yes, I do. That is the way we play. When Ashley first arrived, he had a talk with me. He knows that I have always played as a striker. He said I could perform well in this new role as well. Also, we have our striker Sean (Rooney) performing well; Robin (Singh) comes on and makes a good impact. Having said that, I have always enjoyed scoring goals. All my life, I have played as a striker. It is hard, but at the end of the day, it is about the team. I am glad to do this new role for the team, and for myself. The goals will come. I am working hard on finishing the chances I create.
Does it excite you to see these big crowds at the stadium?
I am thrilled. We expected about 3,000 people for the first game, but 6,000 turned up. Now, it has increased to 7,000. The crowd always back the team, the fact that we are winning helps. Even when you are walking around on the city roads, the people come up and say encouraging things.
Moving to the Indian national team, what do you think went wrong in the recent South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship?
We did not do well at all. I do not want to blame individuals; we just missed too many chances.
As a senior player, I take the blame for missing many chances. If you miss so often, it is not good for the morale of the team. All of us need to work on our finishing.
India has always entered the SAFF Championship as the favourite...
Nothing has changed . After this one tournament, you say that our reign is over. It is not like that. We are still dominant, this is our tournament.
We will come back. What really hurts is the fact that we did not play to our full capability. When you play at your best and still lose, you feel okay because you gave it your best shot. But, in the SAFF, we were not good at all. We have dominated the SAFF in the past, and we will come back strong