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Thursday, Sep 19, 2019

‘We are a young side and not scared’: Sunil Chhetri

World Cup Qualifiers: Before joining the camp for next month’s games against Oman and Qatar, Indian captain Sunil Chhetri explains why he is optimistic about this young team

football Updated: Aug 18, 2019 10:59 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Chhetri says that the country should have a reserve league to run alongside the main league and more domestic matches
Chhetri says that the country should have a reserve league to run alongside the main league and more domestic matches(Getty images )

Instead of a short holiday in Croatia, Sunil Chhetri spent most of last week at a hospital in Bangalore because wife Sonam had caught dengue.

“She is better now but it will take her a month to recover,” says Chhetri over the phone. Most of that time, Chhetri, 35, will be away on work; first at a preparatory camp in Goa from Monday and then for India’s games, against Oman and Qatar, in the second round of the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup.

“We have got the two toughest games at the start and I hope we use it to our advantage. Qatar away (September 10) is one of the most difficult games in this campaign. So, I hope we do well against Oman at home (in Guwahati on September 5), that nobody gets injured and we can carry the momentum of that game into Qatar,” says Chhetri.

“The fact that we will spend 20-21 days together (from when the camp starts to the game against Qatar) will help. We have been miserable away, so that time together will probably be a good thing.”

India, ranked 103rd by Fifa, played Oman, currently 87th, in the 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle too, losing 1-2 in Bengaluru after Chhetri scored his 46th international goal with a curling left-footer, and 0-3 away. India were then 141st in the world, 40 slots below Oman.

Under Stimac, new players and a new way

“We are a better team now. Then, we were a team in transition,” Chhetri says, referring to the side led at home by Arnab Mondal and which had Subrata Paul in goal with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu his understudy. “Gurpreet was a young player then. Those young boys are men now who can keep their place in the team. For instance, Udanta (Singh) is a very important part of the team now. And we have a great leader in (Igor) Stimac,” says Chhetri.

The Indian captain says what he loves the most about his new coach is the way he is generous with giving chances to young, upcoming players. “He was a footballer and he understands,” Chhetri says.

The Croat’s accent on passing too is something Chhetri is a fan of. “He encourages players to pass the ball, ask for the ball. That is why the likes of (Anirudh) Thapa and Sahal (Abdul Samad) are in the team. We are still learning the process but even in the losses in the Intercontinental Cup, the silver lining was that we could match opponents till defensive errors took the games away from us. The day we get it, we will be very strong and play beautifully too.

“I think the players enjoy this freedom,” he added. “And I like the way he gives confidence to everyone. It means the first 11 can’t get complacent.”

Chhetri says while Stimac will have a general way of playing, there will be tweaks in the plan depending on the opponents. “You will see us trying to keep the ball a lot more against Oman, Afghanistan and Bangladesh but you may not see us doing that against Qatar.”

But aren’t India risking losing crucial international games while adapting to the Stimac way? “We could though I hope we don’t. The important thing there is to know the first 11-14 players. Once that is decided, the team becomes more stable.”

After India’s 2-5 loss to North Korea in the Intercontinental Cup last month, by which time he had made 28 changes in four games since taking over, Stimac had said: “Now, we know who we’ve got. What we have and what we don’t have. And now we can make plans for future.”

That Stimac is following a method that is consistent with what teams in the ISL and I-League do is also helping players.

“The Spanish coach at East Bengal wants to play from behind; Chennai City too,” Chhetri says. “For me, Udanta, Gurpreet (all from Bengaluru FC), it is nothing different. For Mandar (FC Goa) it isn’t different. Vinit (Rai) has told me that even Delhi Dynamos did it last year. We all do a lot of keeping the ball and five-against-two rondos (a drill where five players try to pass the ball and two try to intercept) at training.”

India’s Asian Cup experience, where they beat Thailand 4-1 and narrowly missed the round of 16, has made Chhetri ‘optimistic’ going into the qualifiers.

“I try to be as vocal about it as possible when we are together,” he says. “Though we know our limitations and accept that some teams are more powerful, we are not scared. It also boils down to how well we train, how confident we are because we are still a very young side.”

Chhetri is the rare player in his 30s in Stimac’s rookie side. On his first day at a camp, Chhetri says defensive midfielder Amarjit Kiyam called him ‘Sir.’

“I took him aside and asked, ‘what’s wrong with you’? Then he said he was born in 2001. I started as a pro in 2002 (with Mohun Bagan) so I understand.”

Need reserve league, more matches

What Chhetri does not understand is why India does not have a reserve league. “It has to run with the main league. Say, FC Goa travel to play Bengaluru, they should bring 28 players instead of 20. Those who don’t play the ISL game should play the reserves game the next day. Those players will get competitive games and when one of them, such as Manvir Singh, joins the India camp, he would be way more confident than he is now. Manvir is a top player but he is either played out of position or gets a handful of games because FC Goa wouldn’t play him over Coro (Ferran Corominas). India needs a strong reserve league and it is doable,” he says.

Chhetri wants a discussion on how to increase the number of matches per season. Playing the Super Cup in a round robin format is a suggestion, he says. Following the 12-team K-League and the 10-team A-League models of teams playing each other more than twice is an idea worth exploring, he says even as efforts should be made to get more clubs in by targeting different regions.

Or tournaments such as the Durand Cup can be a regular pre-season affair. “One of football’s oldest tournaments cannot be competition only for reserves teams. The reason we didn’t send the first team was because there was no clarity on when the Super Cup would be held which meant we couldn’t get the foreigners. Also, we really wanted our reserve team to play. Make the Durand a proper pre-season tournament and I would welcome it because we don’t get enough games.”

Samad, the next big thing

Of all the young players who have broken into the national team, Chhetri has the maximum time for attacking midfielder Samad, 22. “I had big hopes on Alwyn George and I am sad he is not in the scheme of things. Sahal can change games because he can dribble, pass and score. And he is not scared. He doesn’t think, ‘Oh, Syria or North Korea and I need to be careful’; he just dribbles. He needs to work on his strength, stamina, eating habits and mentality, but if he can train well, he will be the next thing.”

Unlike with Bhaichung Bhutia, who took over as front third leader from IM Vijayan, and Chhetri who did that after Bhutia quit, there is no clear successor to the man who has scored 71 goals in 111 internationals for India.

“There are a number of players who can do what I provide to the team on the pitch,” he says. “Off it, it will take some time. The day I get a Sahal or a Thapa, or anyone giving the team what I probably give right now, I will happily leave. But unless we get that guy, I am not leaving.”

First Published: Aug 18, 2019 09:18 IST