Sunil Chhetri has been part of I-League-winning campaigns before, but nothing would have tasted as sweet as Monday night’s victory at the Fatorda Stadium. He wheeled away in child-like delight after his last-gasp goal and, as the final whistle blew, led Bengaluru FC’s frenzied celebrations on the pitch. The party that followed afterwards, he said, was “mad, just mad”.
Chhetri won the title with Churchill Brothers last year, where he spent the second half of the season on loan, and was with the victorious Dempo side of 2009-10, leaving for the USA a couple of months from the end of the league. But there is a feeling that he cherishes this I-League triumph the most.
“I wouldn’t like to compare but this feels special because I was at this club from the beginning. This is the most special one,” he told The Hindu in Margao on Tuesday. “This club has been built so well. The passion flows right from Mr. Jindal, the owner, through to Dixon, our ball-boy. I don’t think we knew what we were going to achieve.”
Chhetri made his debut in the top tier of Indian football in 2002, but the 29-year-old hailed this season as his best ever. “Yes, it is (my best season ever), because this is the first I-League or national league that I’ve played almost all the matches in. I’m feeling very happy about that. It’s because of our coaching staff that we have very few injuries in our team; that’s also a reason why we are at the top right now.”
The Bengaluru FC and India captain said, “There have been goals from everywhere — John Johnson, Robin Singh, Thoi Singh, Johnny Menyongar — all important goals. That’s the reason why we’re here. It’s not about individuals in our team.”
Asked for the biggest factor behind Bengaluru’s success, Chhetri’s response was immediate. “One reason: Ashley Westwood. His technical and tactical knowledge are a class apart. Off the field also, he’s a great personality. He’s interested in all the players and he pushes us every time,” he said.
Chhetri is now the season’s joint-leading goal-scorer in the I-League with 14, level with Shillong Lajong’s Trinidadian striker Cornell Glen. Not since the second season of the National Football League in 1998 has an Indian finished as the highest scorer in the country’s top division. Chhetri is keen to correct that imbalance, with one game left. “Now it is in my mind, now that we already have the I-League in our pocket,” he said. “That is something that’ll be in my mind in the next game against Sporting Clube de Goa. It’s a great thing and I’ll try my best. Let’s see where I end up.”
Chhetri was unreserved in his praise for Bengaluru’s supporters, large in number and fiercely vocal. “They’re out of this world,” he said. “They’ve set a new trend; they travel to matches away also. A lot of clubs are going to follow this now. This is our first year and it’s unimaginable. We never thought we’d get this kind of response. It’s definitely one of the reasons why we’re champions of the country.”