Sunil Chhetri was getting back to the team hotel when HT reached him on Monday evening. “I am not much of a drinking man but today I will,” said the India skipper minutes after guiding Bengaluru FC to their maiden I-League title, fittingly with an injury-time goal that calmed nerves.
That was Chhetri’s 14th I-League goal, the maximum by any player this term. If he does win the golden boot it will be the first time since 1997-98 that the award will go to an Indian striker. The last time that happened was when Raman Vijayan (10 goals) emerged top scorer in a competition dominated by imported strikers. Only one other Indian — Bhaichung Bhutia — has scored 14 goals in one edition of the competition and that was when it started in 1996-97.
“The team partied into Tuesday morning and the boys deserve every bit of this. We’ve brought the party back to Bangalore where we are with our wonderful fans. That’s how it should be done,” central defender John Johnson told HT.
To all those who would repeatedly point out that Chhetri was consistently inconsistent at the club level, the India skipper said: “Such comments motivate me. No excuses but due to injury or because I had gone abroad, I didn’t play too many games over the past few seasons.”
“When I joined this club, everyone was like ‘what do you think you are doing? You will be fighting relegation by season-end. Looking back, I can say with conviction that I have joined the most professional team in the country. One where everyone is in sync,” said Chhetri, 29, who moved from defending champions Churchill Brothers on a two-year deal.
“Right from heart-rate monitors to nutritionists and the gaffer (Ashley Westwood), there is just no comparison. They signed a coach first and then got the players unlike at a lot of other clubs.”
Chhetri said he was sure Bengaluru FC wouldn’t be fighting for relegation but “honestly, I was looking for a mid-table finish and then taking things forward next season. Never really thought about winning the league till this morning.”