‘We believe in team work’

PTI

“To get a result against Cameroon, we knew that our technical qualities alone would not be enough. We knew that as a team we have to be supremely spirited and defend like there is no tomorrow. We did not give up and kept fighting and I am proud that we could do that.” Sunil Chetri recalls the recent Nehru Cup triumph in this interview with Ayon Sengupta.

In the modern days of mercenary footballers — where (club) loyalty is bought and sold with regularity — there are still men who are more passionate about turning in for their nation than baring their soul to the highest bidder in sight. Though retaining his boyish looks even at 28, Sunil Chetri has shown immense maturity in leading the Indian line, scoring 37 goals from 63 outings — closing in on Bhaichung Bhutia’s record 43 (107 games) international strikes.

The Delhiite’s international record is far superior to his club returns of 58 goals from 114 games. Now trying his luck in foreign shores, playing for the famous Portuguese side, Sporting Clube de Portugal’s B side, the diminutive striker took time out to speak exclusively to Sportstar from Lisbon.

Question: How special was it to lead India successfully in your first big assignment as the skipper?

Answer: It was indeed very special. I think it was one of the most spirited performances by Team India, and I am very proud of it.

How would you rate this win compared to the previous two Nehru Cup successes as well as the AFC Challenge Cup victory?

I do not want to compare the successes we had as every tournament was different and had different challenges. Yeah, but this one is very close to my heart for two specific reasons. Firstly, we were a very new and a young side and then the fact that we were the lowest ranked team. Nobody thought we could (win), especially when the mighty Cameroon was also participating.

This is a new-look Indian side. What according to you is the USP of this squad?

The good thing about this team is we have a lot of new lads, and mind you all of them are very talented and on top of that everyone listens and wants to improve. And also with the positive influence of our gaffer (Wim Koevermans) everyone believes in team work.

What are the new challenges that you have to face now that you are one of the senior players?

Sunil Chetri with team coach Wim Koevermans.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

As a senior player, along with Gourmangi (Singh), Subrata Paul, Clifford (Miranda), (Syed Rahim) Nabi, I try to give the same comfort and knowledge to our juniors as what we got from our seniors. My batch, consisting of the above mentioned players, was very lucky to have seniors like Bhai (Bhaichung Bhutia), Renedy (Singh), Deepak (Mandal), Mahesh (Gawli), Sameer (Naik) and Climax (Lawrence). They were very helpful, kind and always guided us in the best way. Now, in this team we try our best to replicate what we got as juniors.

Delhi! What is the secret behind India’s success there?

Delhi has been phenomenal, simply the best atmosphere I have seen as far as playing for the country is concerned. First it was the Ambedkar Stadium and now the Nehru Stadium. I cannot thank the crowd enough for cheering us.

How difficult was it to play against a physically imposing side like Cameroon? What was the strategy the team adopted to deal with it?

It was very difficult to play against Cameroon for the obvious reasons. They are one of the most physical sides in the world and they also showed that technically, too, they are very strong. To get a result against them, we knew that our technical qualities alone would not be enough. We knew that as a team we have to be supremely spirited and defend like there is no tomorrow. We also did realise that we will get our odd chances and when we do, we have to take them. And I think as a team we did everything, even when we went 2-1 down in the second half, it became so difficult because with their power, strength and the ranking they could have easily made it a one-sided affair. But we did not give up and kept fighting and I am proud that we could do that. Specially the young ones like Lenny (Rodrigues), Francis (Fernandes), Robin (Singh) who have just started their National careers were outstanding.

Is Sunil Chetri the Leander Paes of Indian football? Your performance in the national colours is always a few notches above your club performance.

Well, it’s never a deliberate effort. Whenever I play for the country or the club I always try to give my 200%. Yeah, but having said that I have been a little more fortunate while playing for the country.

The change in tactics was one of the talking points in this Nehru Cup. How difficult was it to move away from long ball tactics to ball retention?

Chetri celebrates with team-mates after scoring against Syria in the recently concluded Nehru Cup in New Delhi.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

It was not very difficult. We might not be the most skilful or talented in the world but we are very obedient and we listen to the coach. So we always try to do what the coach wants us to do. Under our present gaffer we have a way of playing football and we are trying to understand it. We are not there yet, but surely we’ll give our best to keep improving ourselves under his guidelines.

How was it interacting with Wim Koevermans and what has been his influence? What are the things that the new coach has brought to the table, which you think will help Indian football?

The interaction with Wim, our head coach, has been great. We were in touch even before I arrived at the camp in Bangalore. He has a very positive influence on us. He has a plan on how to go forward and is very dedicated to act on it. One of them is to keep the ball and feel confident. Apart from his rich technical qualities he is also very friendly and mixes with everyone. He always gives supreme importance to team spirit and togetherness.

How much credit should go to (former coach) Bob Houghton for India’s current success?

Well, Bob Houghton is one of the best coaches I have worked under; I have learned and improved so much under him personally. He is truly one of the best in the world and we enjoyed a lot of success under him.

But this tournament triumph was entirely because of our present coach Wim, the coaching staff and the players.

You have talked about playing more international friendlies. What are the teams we should be targeting now?

Chetri with Bhaichung Bhutia after the Nehru Cup victory over Syria in 2009.-

Playing international friendlies, that too on FIFA friendly dates, is very important for us. It will give the adequate number of matches to the national team and also give us a chance to improve our rankings. I truly believe we are much better than where we are right now. Which teams to play is completely the decision of the coach.

How has your stint with Sporting Clube de Portugal ‘B’ been so far?

It has been lovely, the coaching staff here is very supportive and my team-mates are very friendly. The level is much higher, but I am trying my best to cope up. I am 28, but I am fighting for my place in the playing XI with players who are just 18-19 years old. The facilities are top of the world and training is very intensive.

How do you think playing abroad will help Indian football?

Playing overseas is a very challenging task as it takes a couple of days for a player to get a grasp of the basic things. The Indian players are bound to get overawed after seeing the facilities here. If I succeed in making a mark over here, then other players will get inspired and our footballers will be motivated to do well.

What is that one grand idea you have to popularise and improve the standard of football in India?

Well, there is not one but a lot of things that we have to do right to popularise football in India. But if I have to point one, then having matches late evening, under lights, is one of the important things we have to do. Firstly it attracts television audience, secondly the quality of football is much better under cooler conditions rather than in the afternoon and thirdly if it’s late evening people can come and watch it in the ground. I know, as a matter of fact, people do want to watch and support football. After all it’s the best thing in the world. It’s life!