As the year 2016 comes to a close, India’s ace footballer Sunil Chhetri reminisces his splendid moments of the year that gave him special recognition with Bengaluru FC and reveals his aspirations and a life-size plan ahead into 2017, in an exclusive interview to thestatesman.com.
“We did really well in the year. For the whole season, I was injury-free, which is always a plus point for me," Chhetri said, speaking on the sidelines of the I-League 2016-17 launch in New Delhi.
"The complete season was fruitful and I really enjoyed, he said, adding, first with the national team, we won the SAFF Cup in January and later did well with Bengaluru FC as well”.
No Indian club had ever reached the final of the AFC Cup, but Chhetri-led Bengaluru FC created history in November 2016. Every Indian club and football enthusiasts stood together to support the Bengaluru side, which already had won the I-League earlier in the year.
Although they lost 0-1 to Iraq’s Air Force Club in the final, Bengaluru FC gave the Indians a hope that they may see an AFC Cup coming home down the line.
Talking about the I-League fresh season that is scheduled to begin on January 7, the skipper of the defending champions added: “I have really small targets, like next week, 10 days, next game, that's it. My focus will be on 10 days training that I am going to do with my team. We are playing Shillong Lajong first at home so my target is to prepare ourselves strong for the opener.”
Founded just three years ago, Bengaluru FC have won I-League twice in 2014, 2016 and Federation Cup once in 2015. It was described as Ashley Westwood era of Bengaluru FC, when they saw so much of success.
However, Begaluru’s current coach Albert Roca is no less effective than Westwood as it was he, who guided them in the epic journey to the AFC Cup final.
“There are a lot of technical similarities with the way they want us to win. There are differences also. The way we attack now under Roca is different to what we used to do early with Ashley Westwood. Both are very able coaches and I learnt a lot under them.”
“Under Westwood, we became the most dominating team in the country. We won the league twice in three seasons, besides a Federation Cup. I wish him luck,” the 32-year-old thanked Westwood, who coached them for three years.
The manhattan plot of Bengaluru FC appears on a constant rise, while Indian National football team is on its decline since a long time for now. Chhetri revealed what it takes to build such a consistent team with the same resources that the National team has.
“We are doing the right things, we are trying our best. The best thing about Bengaluru FC is we work hard constantly to improve ourselves. We might not win the league this season, we might not get anything, but the fact that we want to improve will never change,” he said.
India currently rank 135th in the FIFA World Rankings and their chances of qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup are slim. However, Chhetri stresses that India first need to improve in India if they want to compete on the world level.
“First, we need to come in the top 10 of Asia. We are talking about 2020 World Cup, but entering the top 10 will be difficult too. So this is my target for now. You see Thailand, they were with us in the qualifiers, but now they are in.”
“Once you are in the top 10 of Asia, you can aim big. We have to come and stay there, qualify for the Asia Cup and stay there. Last time, we qualified for the Asia Cup but missed in the middle. We need to play constant games one after the other that will make us improve,” the striker said.
Talking on the current hot-topic of the ISL-I-League merger, Chhetri, who is a part of the drafting committee as well, said: “I would love it and I am sure the whole country is gonna love it. One League with more teams, expanded to the whole nation for more months of action. There are a few technicalities and they are working on it. Eventually, we'll see one league.”
India will host the Under-17 World Cup in October 2017. Chhetri wished the Indian colts luck for the mega-event and he eagerly waits to see them in action. “They (U-17 boys) are well in shape. I saw two of their matches, they are very confident. I am sure they will give their best, playing in different conditions against different teams.”
The star striker from Secunderabad hailed AIFF and I-League clubs like DSK Shivajians, who are doing great work for the grassroots development.
“They (AIFF) have done a lot of good things in academies for the grassroots development. But AIFF is not enough, every club and every player need to step up in this direction. DSK are also doing work for the grassroots development,” Chhetri said, urging all clubs to come together for the cause.