Sunil Chhetri: Would love to have one league

" ISL is just one of the important parts of Indian football. All the other factors, the I-League, the national teams from senior to junior, we all have to buck up and keep improving. Only having ISL is not going to help," said Chhetri.

Sunil Chhetri is India's highest goal-scorer.   -  Vivek Bendre

“My life revolves around shuttling between taking the field for India, Mumbai City FC and Bengaluru FC. Couldn't have had it better.”

Sunil Chhetri’s Twitter bio hints not only at his professions but his humility as well. He doesn’t boast of being the India captain, or the highest goal-scorer for his country.

He is so modest that soon after launching a talent-spotting-cum-grooming initiative, he prefers to sit at the base of the dais to discuss his vision for football in India. As he spells his thoughts out, one realises he is as fluent while speaking as he is with his dribbling skills on the field. Excerpts:

How much has Indian football changed since you started playing a decade and a half ago?

Thirteen years to be precise. It has changed a lot for the better for sure. The pace at which it has improved, I would definitely want it to be faster. We are definitely improving. We can definitely be more fast on our process of improvement but that’s the way it is. Because I have been playing for thirteen years, one thing I have understood is that the only thing that’s in my hand is myself. All the other aspects important for football, for example the media, the government, the federation, the corporate houses, the clubs, the ISL, the players, the coaches, all of them will have to come together. But the only thing that is in my hand is my performance. So rather than thinking something like that coach should do this, or AIFF should improve that, or government should have done… Instead, I just have to think what can I do; how much can I improve as a player. In that process, I just have to hope that every other department also does their job well. That’s where we will improve. The last thing you want is we pointing fingers at each other. That will never help, never has and never will. Whenever I talk to other players, national team or the club, I just tell them to think about your stuff. Whatever you are today has to be better than yesterday and should be better tomorrow. That’s where we can improve. That’s how we can improve and everyone else also improves.

Is your involvement in DreamChasers a hint at starting to prepare for your life after football?

One of the reasons, yes. I get a lot of calls to collaborate with different academies but due to some differences, I don’t. I am really particular about it. But here we have had long chats for six-eight months now. All the three captains of the army [founders of ProForce], people who are really straightforward, want to do the right stuff. That’s why I collaborated with them. I know and I believe that they are the right people and they are going to give whatever they have to the game of football. What happens eventually is something that nobody can predict but I know that they will work hard and that’s why I have collaborated with them.

Do you really think India has untapped talent that can make it real big on the world stage?

We have 1.3 billion people. Whenever a World Cup or Olympics comes, we end up saying, “arre yaar medal nahi mila (oh dear, we didn’t win medals)” or we are not doing as good as we could have in football, or any other sport. The question that we have to ask ourselves is: “is every kid who wants to play is given the right atmosphere?” The day we can say yes, then we can raise our hands and say whatever medals we get, that’s what we deserve. Until we as a nation know that every kid who wants to play is given the proper opportunity and infrastructure and everything, we can’t say this is the best we can have. For example, USA and China win a lot of medals and there are a lot of reasons for that. One of the reasons is they have a bigger pool to choose from. And that’s what we have. But still we can’t match them. There has to be some issues. One of the reasons is lack of tapping the talent at the right time and giving him or her the right facility to work on. Until we do that, we can keep cribbing about it. And it’s not just limited to football, it applies across sport.

Will hosting the Under-17 World Cup be a big boost in that regard?

It is surely one of the major things that’s happening in our country but we have to ensure we build on it. It shouldn’t end at the end of the event. It’s just one of the important things. Then on, everything has to work closely. The academies, the federation, the state government, everyone has to work accordingly. That’s where Under-17 World Cup can be a starting point. It’s a big, big circle but as a player you just have to improve yourself.

Can you elaborate on the positives of ISL’s inception?

One of the most important things that happened due to ISL is the kind of awareness it creates, the kind of following it gathers. It’s huge. Everyone in the world knows the ISL is happening in India. Such big names come to India, so it generates a lot of interest. It’s very, very important. But we have to build on it. ISL is just one of the important parts of Indian football. All the other factors, the I-League, the national teams from senior to junior, we all have to buck up and keep improving. Only having ISL is not going to help.

Most ISL teams train overseas ahead of a season. How does it help?

Teams generally go out to prepare is because you get better facilities and very little distractions. That’s one reason and I don’t think it’s going to change. In fact, it’s not got anything to do with lack of facilities in India. A lot of big teams like Manchester United go away to train during off-season to take the focus away and make everyone relaxed. That’s the main reason.

There has been a lot of talk over whether ISL and I-League should be merged. What’s your take?

I don’t know, man. Happy to be part of I-League, happy to be part of ISL. If you ask any one of us, even you would love to have one league because it becomes a little bit difficult to plan the calendar, both for the ISL and the federation, the national team and the I-League. How it’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, I don’t know. One thing I know for a fact that the ISL, the I-League and the federation, they all want football to improve in our country. I just hope they all can sit together and formulate one plan or one league which is the most beneficial for everyone; and we can also plan the 13 international friendly days properly. Once that happens, everyone’s going to be happy.

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