The clatter of cleats on concrete rises above the din emanating from the field at the Ambedkar Stadium. The kid is late — but not too late. It’s Thursday, the third day of the camp organised by Delhi Soccer Association and Letzplay FC, and Sunil Chhetri is almost done with his daily pep talk — “I keep it to six-seven minutes, not more, as beyond that, kids tend to zone out,” he says later.
It’s off-season; he ought to be training. He is - working out at home in the mornings, and coming in early to do his drills in the afternoon. “I can’t train with the kids,” he says. “Tempo doesn’t match.”
Of course, there’s no need to remind Chhetri of the importance of actions vis-a-vis words. So, he joins the young ones, shows them how it’s done.
By virtue of him being one of the few Indian footballers to have been there and done that, the captain of the national team is in a position to offer sound advice to aspirants. For the happy summer campers, it’s in the vein of wearing shin guards and convincing the parents that a balance between the game and studies shall be maintained.
For those on the threshold of a professional career, Chhetri advises caution: “An emerging striker chooses a club that already has established players up front, two other youngsters do the same; how many opportunities are they going to get between the three of them? Instead of going for a big-name club, young players should see where they are likely to get more chances.”
Could Chhetri be chastened by his European experience? Perhaps. The euphoria of being picked up by Sporting Lisbon for its ‘B’ side did not last long. “True, the facilities are world-class,” says Chhetri. “But not playing on Saturdays and Sundays, sitting on the bench, that makes me cranky. I can’t afford to wait too long for opportunities --- I’m not 19 anymore.”
With a year of contract still to go, Chhetri will now head back to Portugal to have a “more direct” talk with the club. “If the talks go well, I’ll play for them. Otherwise I’ll come back,” says Chhetri, hinting that “back” can also mean Qatar or UAE.
One new thing that he did learn in Lisbon was yet another language. “I understand Portugue-se,” says Chhetri, who also has working knowledge of, among others, Bengali and Konkani - helpful, no doubt, in the Indian football setup. “To your teammates, you can pass on instructions. Conversely, you can feign ignorance when your opponent-s are talking amongst themselves. Of course, by now everyone knows that I understand what they’re saying!”
Picking up multiple languages isn’t, insists Chhetri, unique: “Footballers who play all over tend to pick up languages. You learn in the dressing rooms, and when fans abuse you!”