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Updated: September 29, 2012 16:09 IST

‘There I am nobody’

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Sunil Chhetri: Let's play ball. Photo: S. Subramanium
The Hindu
Sunil Chhetri: Let's play ball. Photo: S. Subramanium

He’s played professional football in three continents, but Sunil Chhetri says that he still feels like he has to prove himself.

With the 2012-13 Segunda Liga, the Portugese second division, already underway, Sunil Chhetri has accomplished the rare feat of having played professional football in three continents. Apart from having featured in as many as five clubs in the domestic league in India, he has also played in North America’s Major League Soccer. Clearly, even as many claim that Indian football is only marking time, the itinerant Chhetri is clocking up the miles.

We meet on the eve of his departure to Lisbon. After a brief wait, he emerges from his room and takes a seat in the drawing room, against the backdrop of a TV cabinet brimming with trophies. He begins, with unexpected candour, by talking about his latest move. “I know where I stand in India but I need to know how much I can achieve over there. Here I am the captain, but there I am nobody. I still feel like an under-14 footballer trying to prove himself and that is a good thing.”

It is indeed. As part of the B squad, Sporting Clube de Portugal’s reserve team, the diminutive Chhetri (28) will be playing alongside skilful teenagers trying as hard as him to break into the first team. He will have the edge when it comes to experience, but they’ll be quicker than him. “There is already a lot of buzz in the dressing room; they have seen me on YouTube so they know what to expect of me,” he says confidently.  

Equally, he is sure that he’ll be at home in the league which is known for its “chilled out possession game”. It’ll favour him more than the physical style of Kansas City Wizards, now called Sporting Kansas City, where he played during the 2010-2011 season. Diagramming the physicality, Chhetri sends his fist crashing into his outstretched palm.

Back to the game

With the transfer, Chhetri is also hopeful of returning to the FIFA video game series after a year-long absence. His image rights have been purchased by Sporting Lisbon, and he is confident of a better valuation than when he was contracted to Kansas City Wizards. “They gave me 63 the last time,” he remembers, almost wistfully.

When he was unveiled as a Sporting player earlier this year, Chhetri was euphoric. He spoke of his transfer as a move from playing in and for a country that is ranked 165th in the world to playing in a country ranked fifth in the world. India has since sunk four more places in the rankings, while Portugal has moved up one place.

Country and club usually constitute separate identities for a footballer, with the latter being the more durable one. But for Chhetri, country spills into club. “The saddest question I am asked is whether Indians can play football. Yet you have to answer it.” So alongside having to establish himself anew as a footballer, he will have to prove that India is a footballing nation.

Chhetri isn’t bogged down by the burden of proof, however. He has a precedent in Hidetoshi Nakata. One of the first Japanese footballers to play in Europe, Nakata’s signing by Serie A club Perugia coincided with Japan’s first ever appearance in the FIFA World Cup in its 1998 edition. Japan has since featured in all three World Cups. Many have followed Nakata to the shores of Europe, including the likes of Nagatomo, Uchida, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and, most recently, Ryo Miyaichi. Footballing reasons converged with business imperatives in these signings, as European clubs looked to breach new markets abroad.

Bright forecast

A similar phenomenon, which might in the interest of context be termed ‘FDI in football’, is beginning to emerge in India. There is talk of India possibly hosting the next under-17 football world cup, Sporting has outlined its vision for the development of football here and Manchester United plans to tour the country soon. Chhetri’s forecasts for Indian football are also quite bright. “Under Bob (Houghton), we managed to put a string of good performances together. And the Nehru Cup win under (Wim) Koevermans against an opponent (Cameroon) ranked more than 100 places ahead of us shows our potential.”

But the pundit in him (Chhetri appeared occasionally on C2K, a quirky football analysis show, until last season) is wary of taking signs for wonders. Although average salaries of Indian footballers have risen in the past decade, Indian football’s health is still worrisome. “I can’t believe that a country of 1.2 billion people doesn’t have enough footballers. There are talented youth players in pockets of the country but a lot of them lose direction on the way to senior football. We need good scouts to spot talent and proper academies to nourish and channel that talent. We have the money for that,” he says agitatedly.

The difference between world-class youth academies like Barcelona’s La Masia and those in India, Chhetri says with an offbeat eloquence, is “Messi did not grow up with samosas, jalebis and Coke.”

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