Few if any Indian players can match the achievements of Sunil Chhetri. National team captain of the world’s second largest nation, Chhetri’s resume is as lengthy as it is impressive. Chhetri is one of few Indians to play professionally overseas, which he did for Major League Soccer side Sporting Kansas City; is India’s leading goalscorer after overhauling Blue Tigers’ icon Baichung Bhutia; and his knack for scoring crucial goals helped India end a 27-year AFC Asian Cup drought in 2011.
Now 31, Chhetri should perhaps be approaching the twilight of his career. But the striker remains a central figure as India push to make a long-awaited dent in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying. And Chhetri has plenty of fire left in the belly when it comes to achieving success with India, and the longer-term goal of helping lift the massive south Asian nation to a new level of development.
Early stumbles on a long road
The immediate priority is India's Russia 2018 campaign, where hopes of a new era have got off to a shaky start. India suffered defeats against Oman, and nominal outsiders Guam, in a culturally diverse group which also includes Turkmenistan and four-time FIFA World Cup participants Iran. And Chhetri - who has scored all four of his team’s goals thus far to be Asia’s highest scorer during Russia 2018 qualifying - says the challenge is significant, despite only a quarter of the group matches gone.
“Now the road looks very difficult,” Chhetri told FIFA.com. “The boys were really down [after the Guam match] because they are all youngsters, but I when I spoke to them I just said we need to concentrate on one match at a time. Give us as much as you can and see what happens. To be very honest it looks very difficult, but we can’t blame anyone else.
“I thought we did well against Oman, and even though we lost we played really well. We had a penalty disallowed and almost scored [another]. We were happy because we made progress, especially being a new and young team.
“But when we went to Guam we didn’t play particularly well. Even though a lot of reasons were stated, I think the main reason was that the 11 players simply didn’t ‘turn up’ for the game. I have no shame in owning that. It is a mixed feeling, especially because it is a young team.
“What we have to do now is focus on Iran. It is a lovely opportunity for us to play against Iran, because they played at the World Cup and are a great side.”
“We are in a transition phase, with a lot of senior players having left, and a lot of young bloods coming up. We can’t make a team just like that.
“I like to think I’m fairly approachable as a captain, but I believe you can make more of an impression through actions than by speaking and preaching. Only by being disciplined and being a good role-model will the young ones follow you.”
Building from the ground up
India’s football profile has received a boost over the past year with the launch of the Indian Super League, where several glamour international imports successfully helped the competition attract significant crowd and media interest in its maiden season. Also looming on the horizon is the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup; the first FIFA tournament to be hosted in India.
It is all a far cry from Chhetri’s first footballing steps as a youngster. Chhetri was schooled in the game from a young age, thanks in part to a mother and aunty who competed internationally for Nepal, and a father who played in an army team. But football at that point, even more so now, played a distant second to the nation’s sporting obsession; cricket.
“It definitely helps,” says Chhetri of the Indian Super League’s impact on the local game. “It was huge in terms of popularity, more people coming to the ground and more people wanting to know about football, and that is important. But we shouldn’t over-rely on any one single party – the ISL, I-League, the Federation, government, fans, players, media – we all have to do our job. Along with improving the infrastructure and the local league, it is very important that the national team also does well, and it is something that should go hand in hand.
“But this can’t happen by magic, there has to be a process. Sometimes our mistake is, that because we are India and there is so much interest for football, we tend to believe that everything will change suddenly, which it will not. It is important as a nation that we have proper training and coaching at all levels for kids. How you train is very vital, and that is one aspect we have to improve in our nation.
“The sooner that we create an environment and system in which every boy or girl that wants to play football - and if they are good enough - can be provided with good coaching and good facilities, then half our job is done. That is my dream and aspiration for my nation. In that case we wouldn’t have the FIFA Ranking that we have now.”