From helping the Indian team qualify for the Asian Cup, to signing with Major League Soccer club Kansas City Wizards, to facing Manchester United in a friendly, Sunil Chhetri's life has been a whirlwind. It could well have been a blur, but the refreshingly mature footballer has made it a point to take it all in, and learn from every experience. In New Delhi on his way to joining the Indian football team's training camp in Portugal, Chhetri was jetlagged, but candidly spoke to Hindustan Times about his journey, and where the road ahead may take him. Excerpts from the conversation:
What everyone wants to know, what was it like getting onto the pitch to face Manchester United?
It was incredible. When I found out the game was on, and that legends like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes would be playing, I couldn't believe it. That we won, despite being down to 10 men, made the dream complete. How many clubs can say that?
Any particular incidents you remember?
So many. One was when I was playing up front as lone striker, and our keeper sent a long ball up the field, I chested it down, turned and shot on the volley with my left foot. It wasn't the best of shots, but to be able to do that against a world-class defence gave me a lot of confidence.
Prior to the United game, you had said you were a little bit frustrated at not getting more minutes on the field.
I have grown up not being used to sitting on the bench. In the early days I would get angry. Then I realized it's not always that easy. I started being more positive, working harder in training, and automatically things started looking up.
Your coach has said there are some aspects of the game you need to work on.
I have but a great rapport with Wizards boss Peter Vermes. In India I play out and out striker, but here Kei Kamara has that role, so I have to sit back a little. I need to work on my defence, and whenever you learn new things you become a better player. This will show when I play with the national team as well.
How is the playing in the US different from India?
For one the technical proficiency of the players is much higher. The game is also faster and more physical. And then there are the training facilities and the venues. In Kansas, we have four training pitches, plus a stadium that is one of the best in America. Typically we come in around 9 am, have breakfast at the club kitchen, get treated by the masseurs, and then go to training. It's phenomenal.
What has it been like for you personally to make the switch to the USA?
Initially it was difficult, lonely. Indians there used to complain about India, and I would get angry, but I realized that life is just a lot easier there. Here by the time you get to office from home, you are already angry, hassled, stressed. People have a lot more respect for each other there. But there were difficult times as well, when you have no one to talk to. My family has been a huge support. Without them I would never have been able to survive.
What do you do in your free time?
A lot of us foreign players stay in the same building. I was sharing an apartment with Chance Myles and Diop, in the centre of the city. We play a lot of Playstation, go out for meals, hang out. The usual stuff boys do.
For your female fans, are you single?
Let's say I'm not married, and leave it at that. I am a pretty good catch though. I cook, I'm neat, and I'm fit, so it's a good package (laughs).
You are going to join the national team. How did it feel to leave the Wizards and what thoughts do you have on preparations for the Asian Cup?
There was a twinge of disappointment when I left Kansas, because things were really looking up, and I was confident of being in the playing XI soon. But they have been great, and so has the AIFF. My manager told me they wanted to support me and give me the freedom to do what I want. And I have a long term contract there, so I have nothing to lose.
As far as the camp is concerned, the national team has always been my number one priority. I have massive respect for Bob Houghton. He is the best thing to have happened to Indian football, and when I think about joining the team in a couple of days, I get really pumped.
India's chances at the Asian Cup?
Playing higher ranked teams is the way forward for us. Even in the US, my goal has been to show people Indians can play football. And it is the same for the national team. We are ranked low only because we don't play enough international matches. That will change. In Doha next year, we will play all the big names, and that is not a surprise. Getting six months with Bob will make us a much better team. We have already shown that we can beat higher ranked teams at home, now we have to go out and do the same. We are focused and positive.
And who will be the next Indian to play abroad?
There are lots of guys, Steven Dias, Subrata Pal, Pradeep; I hope they get a chance and prove to the world that we are better than 130th in the world.
Lastly, your thoughts on the AIFF development team playing in the next edition of the I-League.
I think it's a brave move that will pay-off. I am sure the team will do well, the Delhi crowd will back them, and they will pull off a few surprises. It will also give us a much bigger pool for the national squad. These boys otherwise would have signed for big clubs, but sat on the bench, been ignored. Now they will play every week and it will make them stronger. If I was here and had the option, I would have loved to sign up for this squad.