'AFC Cup final was the biggest night of my career'

This final was the biggest game of my career. I was watching the replay after getting back to Bengaluru and I was pumped up to see an Indian club holding their own in the final of an AFC competition. November 5, 2016, thus, was also an important day for Indian football as we had caught the attention of the entire country and announced India’s arrival in the Asian football scene.

Sunil Chhetri with and coach Bengaluru FC coach Albert Roca ahead of the AFC Cup final in Doha. "As a whole, our boys, put up a spirited display, keeping the superior opponents at bay for the greater duration of the game," Chhetri writes.   -  N. Sudarshan

Our run to the AFC Cup final can act as a catalyst to fasttrack the growth of Indian football. Despite the disappointment of losing in Doha to Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Iraqi Air Force Club), the achievement is phenomenal — you don’t reach the final of a continental tournament everytime.

 

The boys don’t need to lose heart but seek inspiration from the amazing run to the very summit — almost — of Asian football. Our hunger now is more and though we were distraught for a day, we as a club know how to put the disappointment behind and strive harder.

READ: >Chhetri and BFC mates return to Mumbai City squad

The Iraqi club was definitely a level up in quality compared to our other opponents in the tournament. They were physically imposing and attack-minded, ready to stamp their authority on the game from the first whistle. The quality and the accompanying combination, seen in their game, can only be produced if a settled team plays quality opponents on a regular basis.

Our only competitive games since the end of the I-League in April were in the AFC Cup. While this allowed the players to be injury-free, offering quality recuperation time, the lack of games also perhaps had its affect. Attacking players thrive on confidence and a striker gets an immense boost of ego whenever he finds the back of the net in a competitive situation. However, I am not here to find excuses.

As a whole, our boys put up a spirited display, keeping the superior opponents at bay for the greater duration of the game. Defensively we were resolute, especially throughout the first half, and our young goalkeeper, Lalthuammawia Ralte, playing in place of the injured and experienced Amrinder Singh, was marvellous in goal.

> READ: 'Proud moment for the nation at Doha' - Praful Patel

The back four — John Johnson, Juanan, Rino Anto and Nishu Kumar — had an equally impressive game, calmly throttling any dangers the opponents managed to create. Albert Roca, schooled in Barcelona’s possession style of play, wants to instil the same ball-retaining tenacity in our game, building play from the defence.

But the Iraqis unleashed four attackers on our defence and it was very difficult for us to create play from the back. We were pushed back to play defensively, trying to close space for the opponents in our half. The goal was conceded from a mistake at the most inappropriate of time and we tried our best to equalise, pressing them back for the last part of the game. The goal, unfortunately, never came.

This final was the biggest game of my career. I was watching the replay after getting back to Bengaluru and I was pumped up to see an Indian club holding their own in the final of an AFC competition. November 5, 2016, thus, was also an important day for Indian football as we had caught the attention of the entire country and announced India’s arrival in the Asian football scene.

We created history as we were the first Indian side to reach an AFC tournament final. Dempo in 2008, coached by Armando Colaco, and East Bengal in 2013 had reached the semifinals of the same tournament. Their achievement should also not be forgotten. Bengaluru’s feat should inspire the country and its youngsters — young players in the academy or even street corners to take up the game.

Lastly, I will thank our fans and also the Indians in Doha, who helped our cause with their vociferous support. We feed off the energy of our fans and they played a big role throughout this journey. This passion, however, needs to be there for every game for every club and only then we will see the players going the extra mile to put a smile on their face.

The fans are equal stakeholders in the Indian football story and without their unstinted support the game will not progress anywhere in this country. Clubs, too, need to build their own support base, connecting with the community around them.

Let us all work together and make this only the starting point in our goal to make a mark in Asian and World football.