“You are not good enough for first team, get lost to B team,” was what talismanic India football captain Sunil Chhetri had to listen to from Sporting Lisbon head coach when he joined them in 2012.
Chhetri, then a 26-year-old, was signed by the top Portuguese side on a three-year contract but he returned home after completing nine months. “After one week, I was told by the head coach ‘you are not good enough, get lost to B team’. He was right. The pace in Sporting Lisbon A team was too fast for me (compared to) when I was playing in Indian leagues,” Chhetri was quoted as saying by the indiansuperleague.com.
“I gave a shot for nine months, played five games, scoring zero goal. There was a 4 or 5 million release clause. I was to be there for three years but I told coach I want to go back to India and nobody is going to pay this amount, just release me. They were really nice,” said Chhetri, now 35. Chhetri’s first foreign stint was, however, with Kansas City Wizards of United States in 2010. He also had a disappointing stint at the Major League Soccer side and he returned home within one year after playing just one game for the first team. He did not play any MLS game.
“I played 6-7 friendly games, scored two hat-tricks and a brace and I just thought ‘I am going to start’. But we use to play 4-2-3-1 with a lone striker and (Kei) Kamara used to play. He is a big African lad and he was always chosen before me. So, I did not get the chance in first 4-5 games. I was so sad, I was not used to sitting on the bench. Then I had a lovely pre-season where I scored 14 goals in 7 games. I thought I am going to start. But it did not happen for five games and I just started deteriorating. It was more mental than physical,” said Chhetri who is the second- best scorer in international matches from among active players with 72 goals.
Then India head coach Bob Houghton called Chhetri to join the national team for the 2011 Asian Cup in Doha. He came back to India and did not return to Kansas. Before Kansas City stint, Chhetri signed a deal with English side Queens Park Rangers in 2009 but the Football Association did not allow him the work permit as India’s ranking was low. Chhetri was disappointed but he moved on. Asked what legacy he will leave behind once he retires.
Chhetri said, “If anyone remembers me, it’s about my hard work. When it is time for me to go and somebody else comes, I hope he comes because he is better than me, not because I did not work hard. “When I was growing up, I was always the talented boy, the skilful one. But that leads you to nowhere. All of you who are skilful if you think that is enough, it’s not, not anymore. It is so fast growing, so competitive, so physical and so tactical, you have to work hard, you have to be the most hardworking guy.”
Chhetri also said he was shocked when he was offered a three-year contract by Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan in 2002, his first professional deal, that too by the biggest team in the country. Mohun Bagan then had the likes of Jose Ramirez Barreto, Bhaichung Bhutia and Renedy Singh. “After the 12 class exam results, I got a call from Mohun Bagan. They saw me at Durand Cup when I was playing for City Club of Delhi. I thought they might want me for SAIL Academy. Never ever I thought Mohun Bagan is calling me for Mohun Bagan. I joined the team and trained. They did not tell me they were taking trial of me. After one week they told me ‘call your father’. I was 17 and I can’t sign a contract and there was no agents then. My father came but still I had no clue. Next day, they called me with my father and said ‘here is your three year contract.”