A learner's journey

A learner's journey

Interview : Scoring goals and setting records, Sunil Chhetri has relied on his positive outlook to stay on top

A learner's journey

There is no active player in Indian football who can match Sunil Chhetri’s credentials. The Indian talisman has won the I-League, the Federation Cup, played in a continental club tournament final, has tested his skills in a foreign league and is the leading scorer for his country with 51 goals.

Last month, the 32-year-old, who turns out for Bengaluru FC in the I-League, added another feather in his cap. His pile driver from outside the box against Aizawl FC was his 90th goal in the domestic league — the highest by an Indian. Deccan Herald caught up with Chhetri to know his thoughts on his new personal landmark, Bengaluru FC and the Indian national team. Excerpts:

Ninety goals in the domestic league, how much does that matter to you?

If I have to be honest, it doesn’t matter at all. Probably I’ll talk about all I’ve done once I’m done playing. Right now is not the time for it. Someone asked me if I remembered the first goal I scored, and I was like, not really. Then they had to remind me that it was against Churchill (Brothers) for Mohun Bagan. Eventually when I stop, I’d like to sit back and remember all the moments.

It’s been one of those seasons where things haven’t gone right for your side Bengaluru FC...

It hasn’t been easy. But the best part is that our leader (Albert Roca, the head coach) is very optimistic and motivated. And the boys are giving their best to replicate what the coach wants from us.

How has time under Albert Roca been?

I have learnt a lot. Since the standard here (at the club) is so high, there’s a lull now (since the results are not good). But I think we’re improving.

It’s not easy for a new coach to walk in and get his idea through to the players and expect things to work out overnight. It’s a process and that takes time. To be honest, we’re still learning new stuff in training and that excites me. It doesn’t matter for how long you’ve been playing, it all boils down to how prepared are you to learn something new that can make you a better player. And I think, in this team that’s the mentality that every player carries.

You have been used in different positions this season...

I think I’m like a potato (chuckles). This is what I have done in this club so far. Even when we played under Ashley (Westwood), I was moved to the left-half when we played a diamond in the middle, then when we played a 4-3-3 I was striker on the left, then I also played as the striker upfront.

I see both good and bad in it. Bad because it takes time for you to adjust to the new position and continue playing at a level that you’ve been for this long and good because it adds to your game. There are so many aspects of the game that I was unaware of, but now that I’ve been playing everywhere that adds on. Moreover, the coach knows that he can deploy me in any position and I will deliver, and that’s a positive for the team.

Indian national team embarks on its journey to secure a place at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup later this month. How important is it for football in India?

Very very important. To be honest, we should be playing at the Asian Cup every time. That’s the parameter we need to use to judge if we are doing well or not. We have to keep playing in the Asian Cup which will mean rubbing shoulders with the best in the region. You know the quality you are playing against and then you know how much you have improved.

Is it correct to say India have a relatively easier group in the qualifiers?

Not at all, it’s not true. I have been playing for the national team for 13 years now, and every time India have been placed in the most difficult group. Be it the World Cup qualifiers, the Asian Cup qualifiers or the Asian Cup in Doha (in 2011). So this time, since our group is not the ‘Group of Death’ everyone thinks it will be easy. And that’s the biggest mistake we can do.

Let’s see, the last time we played Myanmar, we needed a draw to advance to the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, but then we went on to lose 0-1. Kyrgyzstan is one of the top nations in Asia, and we don’t know anything about Macau. So even if we’re to keep Kyrgyzstan away, we need to travel to Myanmar and Macau and beat them. This is apart from winning our games here. And I fail to see anything easy in this.

In the past two years, we’ve seen a number of new faces being called to the national team. Do you see it continuing still?

I hope not. It’s not that I am against new players playing for the country. Of course I would love to see a really good player giving his everything for the national team. But I think (Stephen) Constantine (the head coach) has a bunch of players that he thinks is the best suited for his style. But then he hasn’t stopped looking for guys who can better the set up.

While I don’t see many making it to the national team now, I see a bunch of talented guys pushing for a place in the national team and guys like us giving our everything to hold on to our place in the side. That’s the kind of competition I see happening now. And that’s what we need — a quality side playing for India, while an equally talented or a better side waiting in the wings for their opportunity.

Do you fancy someone breaking your league record?

Well, I hope so. Records are meant to be broken. What it will mean is that if there is some striker scoring 100 goals (in the league), he will be scoring for the national team also. It will be good for the country. That’s what excites me.