Sunil Chhetri holds the record for most India caps and most international goals. Over the past couple of years, he has led his I-League side, Bengaluru FC, to the AFC Cup final, a couple of league titles and, last month, the Federation Cup. In this exclusive interview, he talks about his journey in Indian football across the last decade and a half, and the future of the game in India.
Sunil, the reason we're doing this interview is that ESPN.in is completing one year. Your thoughts on the 12 months that have gone by, personally and from an Indian football perspective?
I'm quite happy with the last year -- the club form and for the national team. We've had some great moments and some important victories, which is very pleasing. The couple of games that come to mind are the Johor game (AFC Cup semi-final home leg against Johor Darul Ta'zim) which we played here for Bengaluru FC, and the Puerto Rico game (in Mumbai) for the national team.
There's also (India's win in the AFC Asian Cup qualifier away against) Myanmar. Very important victories, and a lot of positives. A few young ones coming up and doing well for us at the club and at the country (level). Interesting times ahead and really looking forward to it. We had a good year and just want to build on it.
It was an unusual I-League season from a Bengaluru perspective. You've been with the club right from the inception, and it didn't look as if the team was struggling as such on the pitch, but the results just didn't show that. What would you put it down to?
Missing goals. We analysed what went wrong. We ended at 30 points, (and) the champion team was at 37. So we're thinking of all the games, apart from the ones we didn't play well in. All the games that we narrowly didn't get three points (in).
With due respect to the other teams, against Minerva at home, we hit the woodwork six times, drew 1-1, and missed out on two points. Against Chennai, there were two goal-line saves, one by Debabrata Roy that haunts us, and one in the last minute where [Dharmaraj] Ravanan just cleared the ball -- that was another two points dropped.
There's also Aizawl away, against the eventual champions, where I missed a penalty and we had a goal disallowed. So six points are there (from the three matches). All the other games we didn't play well, like Churchill we didn't play well, and we lost away.
So the first important thing that we missed out on this year was goals. Missing goals -- the guilty party were me, (CK) Vineeth, Daniel (Lalhlimpuia), Roby (Norales) who came in between -- we didn't get enough goals. We created a lot of chances, which was a positive. We dominated teams -- most of them -- but not converting chances really haunted us. That was one of the reasons why.
Number two was red cards and suspensions at crucial times for important players, and number three, injuries. Throughout the year, we didn't get Chuantea [Lalchhuanmawia Fanai] and Rino (Anto) who were paramount for us in the last three years. John (Johnson) was injured in between. So yeah, injuries to important players. These three reasons are why we didn't win the league or probably do as well as was expected, but the first thing was missing goals and not taking our chances.
Nonetheless, you did miss out on the league, but if you were to just remove yourself from your role as a Bengaluru FC player, what a season for the romantic. Aizawl winning, and the fact that none of their players had ever really tasted that kind of success before...
Unbelievable. The other day, I heard some people saying 'lucky Aizawl'. I don't think so. They have worked so hard. If you win two games, one game or three games, you can still say it's luck. But when you win a championship over 18 games, it's not luck.
They were outstanding -- every one of them. The best part about them was they were so united. They stuck to their plan, and when you watched them play, you might not see anyone extraordinary, but you see the whole team working in tandem.
Everything was working like a unit. Kudos to the whole management, to the head coach, to the whole staff, and every player. Whoever came in did justice to his selection. At home they were invincible, so difficult to beat at their home [Aizawl won eight out of nine home games, with their only draw coming against Bengaluru FC].
Away, they held together -- 1-0 wins, 1-1 draws. There may have been a little bit of luck, of course, but as a whole I think Aizawl played really well and deserved to be champions.
Fifteen years back, it was unthinkable that smaller teams could ever win the championship. What kind of message do you think BFC and now Aizawl FC have sent out to the Indian football community?
That you can dream. When BFC won in the first year (2014), it was the same case as what it has been with Aizawl. Still after that, we established ourselves with players, the management, Bangalore, the crowd, everything.
But for Aizawl this year, nobody would have thought they are going to win the league. For them to go and win the league, it just tells you that if you work really hard and if you have a good unit, you can achieve wonders. It also allows teams to dream, which is very important. It doesn't matter who you are -- if you dream big and if you work really hard, you can achieve unimaginable results, and that's really good for the nation.
Speaking of unimaginable results, did you ever imagine being in the AFC Cup final? How was that experience like with BFC?
When we started out, no I didn't. We didn't think or even dream that we are going to reach the final. Our then coach Ashley Westwood had a clear message, that we go to AFC, and we make sure we give our best.
For so many years, India had been going to AFC competitions, and only East Bengal and Dempo had reached the semi-finals. Every year, our representation at AFC would be up to the quarterfinals or the round of 16, and we would come back.
The only message from Ashley Westwood then was 'dream big' and to make sure that we take it one game at a time. That's what we did.
Beating Kitchee (of Hong Kong) at Kitchee was a very important game for us. It wasn't easy -- we went 1-0 down, and then it became 2-2 and then we made it 3-2; Daniel scored a lovely poacher's goal. I think that was the turning point, and then we had a change of coaching staff, which wasn't easy to adapt to a new coach and a new coaching style.
They (Albert Roca and Westwood) are a little bit different. And from there, to go on and beating Tampines (Rovers) and Johor, and reaching the finals was superb. The good thing was we were not expected to reach the finals, and so there was no pressure. We were enjoying ourselves and just taking it one match at a time, and we reached the final.
Also when we reached the final, still no one gave us any hope that we were going to win it. When we watch the game now, although they dominated us in ball possession, we had our moments. The game wasn't one-sided, and at the end, over the last 23 minutes, we dominated them, and we had so many chances. Juanan's header, my block and Vineeth missed that free-kick. If that had gone in, you never know.
I'm really proud of the way our team played. Disappointed that we missed out, because even if we make a great team, to reach a final is not guaranteed. Even the best and biggest teams in the world do not reach finals of tournaments. So we reached the final last time and we didn't win it, there's a little bit of regret, but there's a lot of pride in what we did. I just hope we can keep continuing doing great stuff as a club, and in Asia.
Read more: 'We are competing with the best in Asia now' - Chhetri
Your participation in the AFC Cup for next season is now guaranteed, and I suppose in a way this Federation Cup victory must have been sweeter than the last one (in 2014-15)?
This was important. I don't know how to put this into words, but we are spoilt here, especially with the AFC participation. So when we lost the league and we had to play the Federation Cup, things weren't that great.
People weren't thinking that we are going to go there and win it. There were some doubts, and we were just talking and we were thinking how will we not play AFC. That is not something that should happen. We've been playing AFC every year, and it's something that we're really proud of and we look forward to.
To not have AFC would have been disastrous. I hope we never have a year when BFC is not playing AFC. Having said that, when we went to the tournament, we were really confident. The schedule wasn't very favourable, but it wasn't favourable for anyone else. Ideally, that shouldn't have been the schedule of a tournament, especially given that we were playing in Odisha. It wasn't conducive at all.
Eventually we paid the price with me getting injured and Udanta (Singh) getting out. These are two players not only for the club but also for the nation. But it was (the same) for everyone. It was what it was, but finally winning the way we did -- we had a great start, we had a horrendous game against DSK. They completely did us (in). Third game was really good against Mohun Bagan, (where) we just needed a draw.
In the fourth and fifth [the semi-final and the final], we were so clinical. Both games, sadly, I didn't play, but I was so happy to watch us against Aizawl and then Mohun Bagan. They had nothing on us, both teams, and we dominated them and we deserved to be champions. And of course, the fact that we won the Federation Cup is sweet, it is much sweeter that we are playing the AFC Cup again.
You've played all around the country, and you've seen the transition from the National Football League to the I-League and to ISL, and everything that has come in between. How have you viewed the journey and how has the Indian footballer's life changed since then?
It has definitely changed. A lot of players used to think about jobs, as well as playing for their club at that time, to support their families. Financially, players are now sorted.
Lot of players don't have to worry about daily necessities now, which is very good. If you are a professional player and you are playing in the top professional league, you are sorted financially, which is good. The (number of) fans coming to the stadium has improved. Perhaps not in numbers, because someone might say Mohun Bagan and East Bengal used to have 130,000, and now they only get 90,000.
But countrywise, it has really improved -- Aizawl, Shillong, Bengaluru, Kerala, Chennai. All these places enjoy so much of a fanbase. I think it has panned out. I hope we can bring more states in, because people definitely want to watch football.
These two aspects have definitely improved. We have improved in terms of our level, but because we are India and we have to go a long way, everything looks small. We shouldn't be happy or satisfied. Enjoy it, but at the same time, put your head down and keep working hard, because no matter how much we jump, in terms of our level, it is always going to be short.
We are competing with the best in Asia right now, forget about the world. We're in the second to third tier in Asia right now. Let's suppose the first tier has eight teams, and the second too has eight teams, we are somewhere between the second to third tier. We've got to get into the second tier -- the likes of Oman, Qatar, Lebanon. We need to get in there and stick there, and aspire to go to the first tier.
That's the dream right now, and that's the place where we want to be. It will require so much of hard work from everyone, not only the players and all the coaches, but from the federation and from everyone involved in football. That's the only reason we can't be satisfied, but just need to keep working hard and keep improving.
Read more: Chhetri and Bhutia, first among equals
One community which is doing a lot more is the media. There's a lot more reporting around Indian football now, and there are websites and podcasts around the sport. Does that buzz help the Indian footballer?
Definitely, and in every way. It creates more fan base; people want to know more and we reach out to more people. If you think from the players' (perspective), we know everything is detailed.
Everyone is looking at us, and so we want to improve more. So everything comes to notice. Once the media comes, everyone has to give their best. Everything is watched -- as coaches, what are you doing, as players, as a federation -- everyone is watched, and they are asked questions, and everyone talks about it.
So everyone has to be on their guard and everyone has to pull up their socks. It's a great thing, when the media comes in and there's more noise, no one can just be half-heartedly giving, because they know everything is being watched, which is a great thing. I just hope it continues.
The media being critical is not my worry at all, as long as you are coming there and giving your honest reaction. That's all that football needs. You come, somebody had a bad game, he had a bad game. The pitch is not good, it is not good. They haven't been good hosts, they haven't been good hosts. He has been a great player, he has been a great player.
This way, the noise and the buzz just go on, and the genuine fans would always want to come and know, but other people would get associated. (They would say) 'you know what, let's go'. I was reading an article where it said when it's ISL or IPL, not everyone is only coming for football or cricket. They want to be there because it's a cool thing to be there. 'Were you there at the ISL game? Were you there for the IPL game?' 'Yes, I was there.' So when the media comes in, everyone comes in.
One guy or a girl who is not a fan might come one day, another day...the third day he or she will be a fan. They might get more people along with them the next time they come. In that context, media plays a big role and I'm happy they are doing a good job, but like I said everyone has to keep their head down and keep working hard more because everything we do is only going to be less for us.
One thing that you have been vocal about in the past is that India needs one league. Why is that?
Better to plan. Loyalty (to a club) for the players. Roadmap is better. We can stick to one club and we can have weekend matches. So many things -- the national team can get its due. Time, and we can arrange for more matches. So if it's one league, let's suppose for eight-nine months, then the league is there. It's all planned out, the dates are there. You can put in the national team matches. There's enough rest, because you are playing on Saturdays and Sundays. Who doesn't want it?
But wouldn't you want a league with more teams? For a player, isn't it better to get more game time?
Yeah, yeah. And I'm sure the people behind this also want more teams. It's a process and it takes time. Probably from 10, you want to become 12 teams, and then 14. It's panned out, and all important states have come in or have a chance to come in.
That's how you grow. And I'm sure if you ask anyone who wants Indian football to grow, they would tell you that one league and more teams is the way forward. Imagine if there are 18 teams in the premier league of our country, and there are 16 teams in the league one, and 14 teams in league two. Imagine the kind of employment we are giving to the players, and imagine the avenues we are giving for players to come in. It's so much better for everything. I've always said that if there's one league, it would always be good for the nation.
Speaking of the nation, India have had a very good run in recent times. Where do you think that point of belief came into the team? Because they've had an excellent run of late...
I think before the Puerto Rico game, the Guam game [2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier played in Bengaluru in November 2015] was important.
In the 35th minute, we got a red card. I think Robin had already scored. We were 1-0 up, and we had to win that game. The way that team fought, and we probably had more chances even after getting reduced to 10 men. That was the turning point.
After that we had the SAFF Cup, where a lot of important players weren't there. A lot of senior players weren't there through injuries. Sandesh (Jhingan) was out, Anas (Edathodika) was out, Robin (Singh) got injured. To win a tournament, although a lot of people don't rate the SAFF Cup very high, wasn't easy, especially when there was Afghanistan there, who are a decent team.
To win the SAFF Cup with a junior side was a great morale-booster. Then we built on it, and we had some great performances, and to tip it off, Myanmar. That was such a difficult game. I was there and Myanmar aren't an easy team to play against, especially at their home.
All the teams play differently at home, but Myanmar is a team that plays different football at their home. So to get three points from that match was vital. It just shows that you're confident as a team. You have players coming in.
Udanta, what a season he has had. For me, the best player this season. It's a shame that he got injured (at the Federation Cup). We still have three important games -- one for BFC and two for India. It's a shame that he got injured, but what a season he had.
Players like Udanta coming in, has been the standout performer for me this year. Jeje (Lalpekhlua) continuing his run the way he was. Sandesh doing a great job, Amrinder has been in outstanding form. Pritam (Kotal) has been doing really well for his club (Mohun Bagan) and country. All these are positives.
We want 20 more Pritams to come up every year; we want more 20 more Udantas to come up. Imagine the competition...that's what we have to think. If every year we are producing five Jejes and 10 Udantas and 10 Amrinders, imagine where we are going to go. And that's where probably we lack as a nation, because we have such a big pool.
Why is there only one Udanta that I am talking about right now? Why is there only one Pritam or one Amrinder? We need many more of them from different clubs and different avenues. Then imagine the competition, and then imagine how our level improves. I just hope that we achieve these things in the near future.
One thing that has happened since Stephen Constantine has become coach is that he has handed a debut to over 30 players....
It definitely helps, and it doesn't matter if you are a junior or a senior. If you are in a team that is winning, everything is fine -- morally, physically, mentally, you're just a different player. It really helps. A lot of young players coming in and getting a debut is a very good thing.
Stephen Constantine is not giving debuts because he loves to give debuts. The time that he came in, a lot of the people were in a transition period. So he had to (hand out caps to new players). Great that he went to all parts of the country and he chose players, but it is not his motto that I have to come to a country and start giving debuts to young players.
I had a talk with him and when he came in, his plan was to identify his first 14. Every coach wants to do that, and he's still striving to get that. You have to ask him how many has he got, but his main thing was to get his first 14 or first 15 and every coach wants that.
In that process, he had to pick a lot of players so that he can have a look at each of them. He still does it, but it is not his motto to come and give debuts. It just happened that we were in a transition period and he had to pick a lot of juniors. The good thing that happened is we have a bigger pool now to choose from.
I am a firm believer that once you come into the first eleven, take your place. Do not let the other one take yours, because (then) he has to work that much harder to take yours. So the level just improves. Do not let your place go.
The best examples I can give you right now are Gurpreet Singh, Jeje and Sandesh Jhingan. I hope I can see them continuing for another 15 years and doing great things for the country. Jeje has been outstanding. Two or three years ago, he was struggling and I remember he was talking to me and saying that 'people play me on the right side and left side, and I don't know what to do', but now he's the number one player for us. He's the go-to man for us and for his club also. I just hope we keep improving and we have more talents coming up.
Your relationship with Stephen reminds me of the kind of relationship that Bhaichung Bhutia had with Bob Houghton. Is there a leadership role that he looks at you for?
I think he does, and we had our chat. He makes sure that I give my best. He always tells me, 'You can't falter. You're the captain, so make sure that everything you do is right.' Then it's easier for him to give examples and to set a standard. I always abide by that.
I believe that I have to work the hardest. I have to be punctual and I have to do things right, because I am the captain and people look up to me. It's not those times when me and Steven [Dias] used to sit in the back of the bus and make fun of everyone, as juniors. That time is gone.
From the last bench, I sit in the front now. I have to behave in every way and do the right things possible so that the kids can learn, and probably take an example. Bringing them and lecturing them doesn't help -- it didn't help when I was young, because I hated lectures -- you see more by watching and seeing.
I just try and be a good example, and whenever me and gaffer talk, we always make sure that I give my best. Also because I like it. You know when I was young, I was always told that 'ah he's very skilful', 'he's a talent', 'he's different'. Then I realised that if these things are given by god, then I really need to make sure that the other things I work harder on.
I would be very sad if I am not doing well, or let's suppose I am substituted, or if I am not in the team because I was not working hard. I am not in the team because someone is better than me, I'll take it. You're always happy if someone is doing better than you. But you are sad if somebody is playing or doing better than you because you didn't work hard, or you didn't do extra work, or because you took it easy.
You were eating whatever came to your mind, or you were not sleeping at the right time. These things you can control; the talent and the skill that god has given you, you can't change much. That's in you. But the hard work, the dedication, the willpower -- that's all up to you.
I want to be the best in that. I don't want to leave any stone unturned as far as these things are concerned. I take my job really seriously. You know me and you've seen me for so many years -- I'm blessed. I am living a dream.
If someone told me (when I started out) that this is your life the way it's going to be after 14 years, I wouldn't have believed it. Whatever I have achieved now, I wouldn't have believed it if someone had told me that when I started off at Mohun Bagan 14 years back. I have worked really hard for whatever I have got, and I'm never going to change that.
Keeping all of this in mind, and the fact that you'll turn 33 this August, how important is the 2019 AFC Asian Cup? You've been there in 2011...
Very important. Not because I am 33, but for the country. Who knows whether I am going to play this and the next one also? Who knows, I might not play this one also? Who knows what's going to happen? Nobody knows.
There are players like (Francesco) Totti who retire at 40, and others like (Zinedine) Zidane who finished at 32. Whether I am going to be there or not, I don't know. Who's going to be there or not, we don't know. But India has to be there. And that is in my hands and our hands right now in the qualifiers.
I have never had long-term targets, otherwise I lose focus. For me it's the next week, the next game and the next 10 days, and how much I can do and how much hard work I can put in. In life, you never know what happens next.
I just have small-term targets -- I just want to think about the next game, the next training, and just give my best. Who knows what's going to happen in 2019, or later than that.
As far as playing is concerned, I'll try to give my best till the time I'm enjoying it and contributing to the team. When it's not (the case), I am gone. It might be three years, six years, two years or eight years, who knows?