Chhetri: 'It's time to capitalise on the sport's popularity'

There is a dire need to have a unified league in the Indian football calendar. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Playing one tournament, juggling national team commitments and then playing a second league is not the ideal scenario for anyone — players, administrators and fans alike.

Starting 2016 on a winning note... Indian players celebrate with the SAFF Cup after defeating Afghanistan 2-1 in the final.   -  PTI

Mohun Bagan players are cock-a-hoop after winning the I-League title last year. The 2015 season, according to Sunil Chhetri, was a great advertisement for the competition.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

Goalmouth action from the I-League match between Bengaluru FC and Salgaocar FC in Vasco, Goa. Bengaluru FC began their campaign this season with a victory.   -  PTI

It’s not the earliest of wishes, but I hope everyone reading this column has started the New Year on the right note. Personally, I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the year than winning the SAFF Cup with Team India. We were up against an experienced Afghanistan, who are ranked higher than us. This made the win sweeter. We lost Robin Singh, who was having a great tournament, owing to an injury and that meant the odds were all the more stacked against us. But it was nice to see how the youngsters stepped up to complete what was a great team effort.

The New Year has also brought with it a new season of the I-League, and it is something the football fans in the country have been waiting for. Though we, Bengaluru FC, suffered a heartbreak in the finale last year, the season was a great advertisement for the competition, and I am confident that the frenzy around the season will be amplified.

 

As I write this, we have just returned from Goa after beating Salgaocar 2-1 to start our 2016 I-League campaign with three valuable points, and we are definitely not expecting an easy ride, given how much quality all teams have added to their line-ups.

Earlier in the month, I addressed a press conference as a precursor to the I-League season along with the Bengaluru FC coach, Ashley Westwood, and the first question we were asked was whether fatigue would play a role in deciding the title, given how much football most players have played over the last five months. I’m certain most of the clubs that held season-opener press interactions would have a similar story to tell.

Honestly, I won’t be able to answer this on behalf of everyone, but what I will say is that the hectic scheduling has taken a toll on the players. It doesn’t require an expert to hand in this opinion. A lot also depends on how you are used by your club; more importantly, how you are helped to recover and finally how much care you take of yourself. There’s always the worry of a burnout and that’s not a good situation to be in because if you’re not giving your 100%, you’re letting your team down.

There’s also the question of being able to adjust to different styles of play in quick succession. To answer that, I think it shouldn’t be much of an issue for a professional footballer. You have to be adaptable and understand that different coaches will always bring different styles to the table — it’s up to the player to embrace the change as quickly as possible. It’s a trait that a professional picks up with time. However, it’s easier said than done. Teams do take time to gel if they haven’t played much together.

It’s a very subjective matter. To speak from a Bengaluru FC point of view, we have as many as eight new players this season but the core of the squad has been together for two years now, which means getting the gaffer’s systems right isn’t much of a struggle. When the core knows the systems it rubs off on the newcomers and I’ve seen this enough in the past to say it.

With the I-League being reduced to a 16-round affair, teams don’t really have the luxury to take their time in getting the combinations right, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how soon the new signings in every team gel with the systems in place. On paper, every team seems like a threat — Bagan have added to their squad in a bid to retain the title; East Bengal are always strong; Salgaocar have shopped extensively and there are also two new entrants in Aizawl FC and DSK Shivajians who will play like they have nothing to lose, which is a dangerous proposition.

While I can keep handing out my opinion, which is very subjective, what everyone will agree with is that there is a dire need to have a unified league in the Indian football calendar. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Playing one tournament, juggling national team commitments and then playing a second league is not the ideal scenario for anyone — players, administrators and fans alike.

A pan-India league with more teams and a longer calendar would be something I personally would like to see. There have to be teams from all over the country involved. There is an evident increase of interest in Indian football and the numbers in stadiums and on social media support the claim. There is no better time to capitalise on this than now and I am certain the powers that be are working towards this.

Whatever the decisions, they have to be made with the growth of Indian football being the only motive behind them. India hovering around the 160s in the FIFA rankings troubles us players far more than you can imagine. But it’s going to take everyone who has anything to do with Indian football to come together and treat this like a mission and work towards it with great obsession and passion.