The beautiful game has changed Sunil Chhetri’s life, just as he hoped it would, though not quite in the way he foresaw.
The son of an Indian army officer whose Nepali mother is a former footballer, Chhetri had hoped football would be the short cut to a premier college, an MBA, a cushy job and a secure upper-middle-class future.
“I had never ever imagined football would become my career,” chuckles the 25-year-old striker, the newest member of US Major League Soccer (MLS) club Kansas City Wizards. On 26 March, he was signed on by Kansas for three years.
He has already scored four goals, including a hat-trick, in two reserve matches since his American debut and, according to speculation in some sections of the US media, is in the running for a berth in the playing eleven for Wizards’ MLS home match against Colorado Rapids this Saturday.
“It was never a dream to be a footballer,” says Chhetri on the phone from Kansas City, Missouri. “I played for the joy of it. I figured if I could make it to the national team, I would sail through to any college in Delhi—marks wouldn’t matter. Like every other middle-class youth, my aim was an MBA.”
With a plum job as the ultimate goal, he joined a football club, City Club, tucked in the bylanes of Old Delhi, in 2001. He went on to sport India colours but little else went as planned. Once City Club provided him a springboard to the national team and earned him a call from the Mohun Bagan club in 2002, the goal changed.
It has never wavered since.
Eight years of professional football with four of the country’s top clubs, two Player of the Year awards from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and 16 goals in 35 international matches—including a hat-trick in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup final against Tajikistan in New Delhi that helped India qualify for the Asian Cup in 2011—have made him one of the most recognizable Indian footballers since Baichung Bhutia.
Just before the AFC Challenge Cup, India had gone to Portugal on a training tour. There he drew the attention of Yogesh Joshee of Match World Ltd, a UK-based sports agent recognized by the international football body Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa). Chhetri appeared for trials in UK clubs. In August, a deal with London club Queens Park Rangers was inked, but he was denied a visa due to India’s poor Fifa ranking. But it all came together for him in March, when the Wizards signed him on.
Gearing up: (top) Sunil Chhetri practising at his new club; and working out at the Kansas City Wizards gym. Reuters
Chhetri sounds confident of achieving his next goal: making it to the Wizards first eleven. He knows it isn’t easy—the transition from playing for a country ranked 132 by Fifa, to being a regular for a side that boasts of nearly half-a-dozen players who play for the US national squad, currently ranked 16.
“It’s not easy. The speed and the physical nature of the game here, plus the pressure of a match, it’s not easy at all. But I am trying. I am giving my very best,” says the diminutive striker. His height, 5ft 7 inches, is another challenge he has learnt to overcome. “Football is a physical game, especially in the US or Europe. If you are built tall and strong, then you enjoy a definite advantage. But it’s not a prerequisite to be a good striker. It is skills that matter: ball control, ability to penetrate a defence, create opportunities for attack.”
His skills have always stood him in good stead, as his former coach Sukhvinder Singh of JCT Phagwara attests. Chhetri shifted to JCT after a three-year stint with Mohun Bagan and came into his own for the first time.
“He is good in the air. His strengths lie in ball control and his standing jump,” says Singh. “He has got all the good qualities and plenty of talent. He is punctual, committed, a team man and has no fitness problems. He is also mature enough. If he can concentrate on his game and not let these early successes go to his head, then he has a good chance of becoming a regular for (the) Wizards.”
Singh is among three coaches Chhetri credits as his mentors. “My first year in Mohun Bagan was crucial. Subrata sir (Subrata Bhattacharya, the then Bagan coach) was the first to put his faith in me. Despite the presence of big stars such as Bhutia and (George) Ekka, he would play me for 30-40 minutes in?most?matches.?He?gave me?a lot of opportunity.
“But perhaps?I?have benefited most under (India coach Bob) Houghton sir’s training. Together with Sukhi sir, they have made me?what?I?am?today,”?says?Chhetri, adding that he will always be available for the national side.
With the Asian Cup next year, Indian football fans hope the national team will benefit from the American experiences of the man who was instrumental in putting them in contention for the Cup.