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Unleashing passion, uniting a nation: Sunil Chhetri reflects on India's football journey

Indian captain Sunil Chhetri talks about a wide range of topics from the importance of longer camps to the challenges faced by young strikers and the inevitable passing of the torch.

Unleashing passion, uniting a nation: Sunil Chhetri reflects on Indias football journey

Sunil Chhetri (Image via AIFF)


Aswathy Santhosh

Updated: 11 July 2023 1:31 AM GMT

On a serene Sunday morning, Sunil Chhetri, the revered captain of the Indian national football team, graced the media with his presence, setting the stage for an insightful conversation. Against this tranquil backdrop, Chhetri's calm demeanor allowed him to bare his soul, offering a captivating glimpse into the triumphs, aspirations, and challenges that shape Indian football.

Recognizing the significance of longer camps for a team like India, especially in preparation for crucial tournaments such as the Asian Cup, Chhetri emphasized the importance of players harmonizing with one another.

“For a team like ours, especially for the Asian Cup, where we know we will face the likes of Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria, longer camps would always be helpful. When the boys play at the Hero ISL, they are playing at a certain level. But let’s be honest, when we meet Australia, we would meet competition that is a couple of levels higher, if not more,” said Chhetri.

"That is the reason why we need longer camps, to play 2-3 friendlies against some of the top teams in Asia."

The discussion veered into the extraordinary support the team received during the recent SAFF Championship. Chhetri's voice brimmed with heartfelt gratitude as he reminisced about the multitude of voices united in support of the national team in Bengaluru.

"We are very happy. And let me be very honest, it was not only the BFC fans, I saw so many other clubs, banners and people coming in numbers to support the country. And that is beautiful. We have to have a system where we can fight, we can be very hostile against each other when you're playing for the clubs. But the moment we play for our country, everyone has to come together," he said.

Team applauding the fans in Bengaluru(Image via Aiff)

Painting a portrait of perseverance, Chhetri delved into the challenges faced by Indian players abroad.

"It is not easy. We all went alone individually, it is not easy to be there, stay alone and keep your sanity. And I hope you guys understand this. The level is very high. But I've got no doubt in my mind that it (Indian players regularly going to top overseas leagues) will start soon. At the same time, even our league is getting better, which is a bonus."

When speaking on areas requiring improvement, Chhetri openly accepted the concern of poor conversion rates.

"All the areas need improvement. But I think one concern that we had is that our conversion rate probably was the poorest in terms of other attributes of the game. And it is a big concern because going forward, let's suppose, against Iraq or Uzbek or a UAE or Australia, you're not going to get that many chances. So when the chance is squeezed in, it is very important for us to take those chances."

Who the next number nine could be after Sunil Chhetri has always been a disturbing question among Indian football fans. Chhetri spoke about the challenges faced by young talents like Rahim Ali, Manvir Singh and Ishan Pandita in transitioning to the number nine role.

Sunil Chhetri (Image via AIFF)

"Rahim is a specimen. He works really hard and is a really good boy. The issue is that poor kid is played on the left and on the right and as a midfielder for his club. And he worked hard. He got some goals as well. But when it comes to the national team, we want him to play as a number nine, it becomes difficult, because the runs of a number nine is more habitual. The more you do it, the more you understand it."

"Manvir, Rahim Ali and Ishan Pandita are in the cycle. I only blame them that they do not play the number nine role at their clubs. I speak to them on this, I say whenever possible, you got to stay as a number nine. And whenever they open their mouth to say coach said this and that, I tell them "Stop blaming anyone, It's on you". Because they also like to play as number nine. So I hope sooner than later these three-four names take the number nine position because let's be honest, our captain is getting old and soon he'll be out."

When the topic turned towards Chhetri's retirement, he spoke with unadorned honesty.

"I'm enjoying my football. I do not have a date in my head. And I'm being very honest. The day I do not add anything to this team... because I have very high standards for myself... the day I'm not adding anything to this team, I'm gone."

Fans wearing the number 11 at Odisha(Image via AIFF)

Chhetri went on to emphasize that the team's success hinges upon the collective spirit and unwavering dedication of each player.

"When I wasn't there, the team was there when I'm not there team will be there. It's not about Sunil Chhetri. It was never about me and will never be about me. And I'm not even trying to be modest. I'm trying to tell you the truth."

He made a poignant reminder that the journey will continue, and the team will thrive, even in his eventual absence.

"There are many boys who are doing well. Maybe you will not have a standout performer for some time. But you will get a team where everyone wants to work hard. I'll be here till the time I can, not because the team needs me but because I want to be here. Because playing for the country is an absolute honor. I will do it till the last minute that I can."

There is a newfound hope in Indian football after the Blue Tigers' victorious journey in the SAFF Championship, where they emerged triumphant after a nerve-wracking penalty shootout against Kuwait in the final.

Indian football fans in Bengaluru(Image via AIFF)

“This limelight that we’re getting we all like it, but we cannot get ahead of ourselves,” said Chhetri. “There is an invisible pressure on everyone, and we like it, we enjoy it. It’s not just us players or coaches, but everyone – AIFF, the Government, the clubs, and the corporate houses. Even the media as well. Everyone is under an invisible pressure when we need to perform.”

Amidst the weighty topics discussed, the charismatic captain delighted the audience with a light-hearted anecdote. He shared a humorous tale about how the team's motivation dwindled during the SAFF tournament due to a monotonous diet of green leafy vegetables, boiled broccoli, and dal.

"I always reminded them one day more till the fourth of July. And at that time, we hadn't even won a single game. But after eating the same food every day, I could see the the faces of the boys. It's easier for me because I'm not a big foodie. But a lot of boys were struggling. And I kept telling them, fourth of July, just wait. And when fourth of July came and we won the tournament, there was a buffet at the hotel and to see everyone attack that food was such a satisfaction for me as a captain."

Sunil Chhetri announcing that they're expecting a baby (Image via AIFF)

The vulnerable side of Chhetri shone through when asked about his new role as a father.

"I'm learning and taking notes because I don't know. I am reading everything and I have been talking to my father about it as well. I'm going to make mistakes but I will try to be available for them," concluded Chhetri.

Sunil Chhetri's discourse provided a window into the magnificent tapestry of Indian football—its triumphs, its struggles, and its unwavering pursuit of greatness.

His words echo the collective yearning of a nation, a symphony of hope and ambition. As the Blue Tigers continue their quest for glory, Chhetri's leadership and unwavering dedication stand as a beacon of inspiration, igniting the hearts of aspiring footballers and fans alike.

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