Sunil Chhetri said it didn’t strike him till now. The only India player to score an international hattrick in a final (2008 AFC Challenge Cup) and another against Vietnam last year, Chhetri has also played in USA’s Major League Soccer.
He is possibly India’s next captain and unconfirmed reports say at an annual club salary of R1 crore, is the most expensive Indian footballer this season.
But the 27-year-old hasn’t yet won the Federation Cup, the most important event in the All India Football Federation’s calendar outside the I-League.
“It didn’t strike me all this while but, yes, I haven’t won the Federation Cup in nine years as a professional. This makes this edition more important than it otherwise would be,” Chhetri told HT. Bagan, starts in the competition, against Royal Wahingdoh in Pune on Saturday.
With prolific Nigerian goalscorer Okolie Odafa —rumoured to have been signed for nearly R2 crore — Bagan’s megabuck frontline pair is expected to hit the ground running. But Chettri said while the club have lots of talent, they haven’t had time to settle down.
“I’ve been training for eight days and Odafa for two more. The challenge now is performing as a team. Champion players don’t make a champion team. We have a great leader in Steve Darby (Mohun Bagan coach). As a new team, the start is important.”
He accepted that East Bengal, Salgaocar and Dempo go into the tournament better placed. “Teams do well when they retain their core. Barcelona has taken that to a different level but look at East Bengal (eyeing a Federation Cup hattrick) and Salgaocar. They have retained most of their players. Dempo have too,” he said.
Chhetri didn’t agree that returning to Mohun Bagan after an earlier inauspicious stint, between 2002-05, means he has a point to prove now. “Let’s get this straight: I didn’t do badly earlier. I was 17 when I came here and matured as a player at Mohun Bagan and at East Bengal, JCT and Dempo.”
Asked if Mohun Bagan have pegged back his desire to play abroad, the player from Delhi said: “Right now I am 100% Mohun Bagan but my contract allows me to explore opportunities abroad.”