Sunil Chhetri Column: A cracker of an experience

A longer, single league with more teams across more cities will be a fantastic proposition. Everything we do has to be a step forward in pushing Indian football up the ladder and it would need all the stake-holders involved to come together to ring in the change for the better. Till then, all we can do is hope and keep playing the only way we know — with our heart on our sleeves.

Mumbai City FC beat Atletico de Kolkata at the Salt Lake Stadium to register their first away win.   -  ISL/SPORTZPICS

From the couch and the pitch. I’ve watched the first two seasons of the Indian Super League from completely different settings and the one common deduction is a rather heartening one — football in India can be marketed.

I would like to believe that I’ve been around for a fair bit of time and I can say the ISL experience was a first. There are a host of challenges that go into making the league interesting — you have very little time to sync, the schedule is packed, the margin for error is very less and you could go from being a non-contender to a semi-finalist in a matter of 90 minutes.

While it does come across as demanding, the facilities provided by teams to the players go in a long way in balancing things. There are no compromises made on travel, food and stay — all of which play a big role in determining how well you do on the pitch. It was nice to see most of the clubs opt for a pre-season abroad, giving the boys a nice exposure and a glimpse of how things work at most professional clubs.

Speaking about the pitch, the fanfare surrounding the games is something worth taking note of. The League has done much to make it a spectacle every time the teams take the pitch. The crackers, pyrotechnics and blaring speakers infuse some much-needed buzz as the teams walk out.

Footballers in India often feel that we get a raw deal when it comes to fame, and this belief is justified. We work as hard as, and maybe even harder than most athletes and it is nice to get a little bit of recognition and get pampered by the media. The ISL has, in more ways than one, played a big role in changing that. While I am of the firm belief that it’s the football that should always hold precedence, recognition does work as an injection of confidence. It’s nice to see so many of the younger boys on hoardings and giving interviews on television.

On the learning front, it has been a valuable two months. Players like (Nicolas) Anelka, Elano, and (Roberto) Carlos bring with them so much of experience to the table and just being around them has helped all of us. I’m sure the younger lot has made the most of the time with these big names. I, for one, definitely have.

But while the foreigners came with their experience and provided the League with its moments of magic, it was heartening to see the performances of so many Indian boys. If I had to pick a few names, Amrinder Singh in Kolkata’s goal, Cavin Lobo (Kerala Blasters) and Jeje Lalpekhlua (Chennaiyin FC) would be in the mix. Not that these lads weren’t talented before the ISL but they now have a great platform to showcase what they possess. It was also nice to see my good mates Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Robin Singh play pivotal roles for their clubs.

Though my debut ISL season didn’t end the way I and my teammates would have liked it to, it was a very special ride. I used to always talk about how I have played for clubs in most cities in India but somehow Mumbai never happened. This edition of the ISL changed that for me. It was nice to be a resident of this fantastic city and to experience the buzz that everyone speaks about as being synonymous with Mumbai. The fans too were brilliant and on the whole, it’s been a very satisfying season in which I am glad I could chip in with a few goals.

Also, it took our last game of the campaign to register our first away victory this season. I was glad we could get the monkey off our backs. Beating Atletico de Kolkata the way we did was a nice way to draw the curtains on our campaign this season.

An interesting part of the ISL was the auction process, which was another first for me. It was exciting and unnerving in equal measure to be part of the process and I can comfortably say I am more at ease on the pitch chasing a two-goal deficit than sitting through an auction. That said, it was nice to see lads like Rino Anto and Eugene go for the kind of money that was paid for them. I play with them at Bengaluru FC and the national team and was really happy to see them get their due.

Finally, there’s a lot of talk about a unified league in the near future. My only opinion on this subject is that whatever decision is taken, the best interests of the players and more importantly Indian football be given prime importance.

A longer, single league with more teams across more cities will be a fantastic proposition. Everything we do has to be a step forward in pushing Indian football up the ladder and it would need all the stake-holders involved to come together to ring in the change for the better. Till then, all we can do is hope and keep playing the only way we know — with our heart on our sleeves.