He has been the fulcrum on which Indian football, for long, has made most of its moves. Be it their much celebrated wins in the past or disappointment surrounding the early exit from big ticket events like the FIFA World Cup qualifiers or the Asian Cup qualifiers, Sunil Chhetri has been the one who has shouldered responsibility like a true leader.
And now, with the Indian football traversing through a difficult terrain, where the internal management looks in a shambles and their premier football competition – the I-League – facing a near death, Deccan Herald spoke to the four-time AIFF Player of the Year award winner to get his thoughts on the existing situation, the 2015 SAFF Cup win and the near future of the national team.
I-League is in trouble and there’s no doubt about it. The number of participating teams has hit a rock bottom at nine, players’ unemployment is on the rise and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) still seems to have no solution to solve this mess. Does this situation worry you?
Yes it does. But there is not much that we can do as players. It does concern me because a huge number of players are jobless at this very moment and all I can do is hope that by next year we have a better calendar and more and more players get employed. I believe the problems we face today can be sorted over a dialogue. Yes, we need one unified league. But there are still questions over it. A league with 17-20 teams will be ideal given the size of our nation. I just hope that all the think-tanks come together and we move into a better situation soon. But for now, it’s not a rosy picture for any footballer in India.
Who according to you needs to shoulder the blame for this mess? The AIFF -- for not having a proper framework -- or the clubs who have pulled out giving rise to such a situation?
Of the little I know, I think no one party can be blamed and I’m sure that the blame game is not helping anyone. I believe if all the aspects that make up for football in India, viz. the clubs, the AIFF, the government, the players, the fans and the media, do their best without blaming the other party, we can develop as a football playing nation. Yes there is a lack of proper grounds, the national coach is denied permission for camps, and the I-League has no good coverage. These problems need to be addressed collectively.
After a disappointing year on the field that saw the national team tumble in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the young Indian side did manage to bring some cheer to its fans with a title-winning run at the SAFF Cup. How important was the win?
It was huge. It was a much-needed boost to our morale. If you go on to see, we lost Cavin (Lobo), Francis (Fernandes) and Sandesh (Jhingan) to injuries even before the tournament started. Then at the camp we lost Anas (Edathodika) to a hamstring and then Robin (Singh) in the opening game. So, it was not the best of starts. The critics had written us off. So to win a tournament in such circumstances with your ‘second string’ side was very satisfying.
We know it’s not the World Cup, so it’s not that big a deal. But this has helped us in extending our winning run. We won against Guam (in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers) and then four games at the SAFF Cup. We now need to build on these victories and improve as a unit. We need to keep performing the way we have done so far. The results will come along. I believe that’s how you build a team.
The next assignments for the national team will be their FIFA World qualifier ties against Iran and Turkmenistan. What can be the side’s realistic goals going into these matches?
Three points; nothing less, nothing more. Iran away will be very difficult. We need to play out of our skins to even dream of getting anything against the best side in Asia. But then the final game against Turkmenistan in India should be a must win for us. We can’t afford to drop points against them. That gives us six points, putting team in a better position for a shot at the Asian Cup spot.
When you started your journey as an Indian international, you had someone like a Bhaichung Bhutia who mentored you and helped you get accustomed to the atmosphere international football provides you with. Today you are one of the senior players in the national setup.
Have you set out in search of the next big star of Indian football that you can pass on the mantle to?
Not really (chuckles). It will take time. I was very lucky to have a settled team. When I walked in, it was already a set side. You had Bhaichung (Bhutia), Renedy (Singh), Mahesh (Gawli) and Deepak (Mondal). Then I walk in with Steven Dias, followed by Anwar Ali. So it was easier for us. But now the national team is going through a transition phase. It’s a young side, so it becomes difficult. But I have huge hopes from Sandesh (Jhingan), Robin (Singh), Gurpreet (Singh), Udanta (Singh) and many more. We need to ensure that we give them the right platform and a right environment to develop.
Sunil chhetri: It does concern me that a huge number of players are jobless at the moment and all I can do is hope that by next year we have a better calendar and more and more players get employed.