A day before Bengaluru FC (BFC) leave for Doha to play the 2016 AFC Cup final against Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Air Force Club, Iraq), Sunil Chhetri told HT why the match is the biggest of his career.
Speaking over the phone from Bengaluru, Chhetri, India’s most successful goalscorer, also spoke about why he would want Bengaluru FC to be his last club.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: What are your thoughts days before what is a very crucial game for Bengaluru FC?
A: Right now, we are very calm. We have had about six days of training after a two-day break following the semi-finals (the second leg was on October 19). The first message from the coach (Albert Roca) was that we must forget what has happened. When we were about to play the semis (against the defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim), we knew that was big. But he told us that being where no team from India has been might give us a sense of satisfaction. And he warned us to not get into that mood.
There is a bigger prize to be won, he said. He was very harsh on the first day of training and that was good. He told us we haven’t achieved anything. The practice sessions have been intense. During the first four days of training, we analysed videos of our performance. We have now had one video session of theirs (Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya) and we will do more of that over the next three-four days. But through all this, the coach simply keeps telling us to forget what we have done and think about the future.
Q: Would this be the biggest match of your career or would it be the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup final, winning which took India to the Asian Cup after 27 years? You scored a hat-trick in that game and remain the only India player to have done that in the final of an international tournament.
A: I think this one. True, the AFC Challenge Cup final was amazing but this is No.1. Firstly, because it is the present. Secondly, I haven’t achieved it yet. And it’s massive, man. In three-and-a-half years of our existence, we could achieve what no team in the country has. During the group stages of the AFC Cup, we were also competing for the I-League which we wanted to win. It was so not easy. In this tournament, we’ve got stronger with every match. And now we are at the last stage. This is definitely the most important game I have played so far.
Q: At Bengaluru FC, this is the first time you play a team from west Asia but with East Bengal in 2008-09 and Dempo the following season, you have played against clubs from that region. Have you shared your experience with your teammates?
A: I’ve also played against Iraq in Dubai for India. We lost 0-2. They (Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya) are a very good side. But since we’ve watched videos, and these days all clubs do a lot of analysis, we are not going to be surprised (in the final). We know they are a good side; there are four-five players in Iraq national team which is in the second-last round of the Asian qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup finals. They are good but not an impossible side. They are beatable.
Q: Do you anticipate doing a lot of defending?
A: That’s for sure. Generally when we play -- and this is without sounding cocky -- we have a lot of possession. We are usually the dominant side. In this game, we all have to come back and defend well. On paper, we are the underdogs. They are quite an attacking side. So, while we will not go into the match with a defensive mindset but, because of the way they play, we will have to come back and defend. And I think there is no shame in this. We want to win this and if defending as a team helps us get there, we will do it. Anyone who plays in this game as a Bengaluru FC attacker will have to fall back and defend.
Q: Did Roca tell you this?
A: Not directly because he is such an attack-minded coach. He is hell bent on keeping the ball and dominating. That isn’t going to change much. But the moment we lose the ball, we all come back and make it difficult for them to have space.
Q: Doha has a large Indian population. Are Bengaluru FC trying to ensure that a good number comes in so that it feels somewhat like home?
A: We are trying our best. Doha also has a large number of Malayalees and through Rino (Anto) and (CK) Vineeth, we are trying to reach out to them. We will try and get as many as we can (to the stadium). But what also works as motivation is that a lot of people are travelling from India. That is so amazing. Bengaluru FC have become part of their lives. Some have quit jobs to travel. I don’t know how sensible that is but it tells you as a player, how big this has become.
Q: From Virat Kohli to Union sports minister Vijay Goel, Jwala Gutta, Sakshi Malik, everybody has wished you luck. Does that increase pressure on the team?
A: No, you feel really good, man. I really appreciate that. Not just for this game but for the last game as well, the wishes had poured in. And more than the eminent personalities, I was thinking about the gesture from Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Shillong Lajong etc. We fight for the same league (I-League) and there were Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fans in the stadium (during the second leg against JDT). That was the best moment of my life. To have them support us was touching. I never thought this would happen.
Q: At 32, are winning the AFC Cup and getting India to the finals of the 2019 Asian Cup your most important targets?
A: They would definitely be. But I don’t think about when I am going to stop. And I hope it remains like that. One day I’ll stop when I think I can’t contribute; the day I think I am a touch slower than the rest of my teammates. As you know, I am very competitive. So, for me the future is the next training session, the next game. Till then, I don’t want to think about stopping. The good thing at Bengaluru FC is that I am treated as a normal player, made to do every drill. That’s good because it keeps me working hard and I enjoy it. They take care of our food, look after us well and in Ashley (Westwood) first and then Roca, the club has given us two fantastic coaches. I think I’ve been at my fittest here. Bengaluru FC have really made me enjoy football.
Q: So, would Sunil Chhetri end his career at Bengaluru FC?
A: End sounds really bad but, yes, I am not thinking of going unless they throw me out. You can never say never in life but at the moment, I am not thinking beyond Bengaluru FC. This is family and I have been part of this from when it was established.