With 72 goals for India and getting younger with time, it fit that Sunil Chhetri, 36, would speak on Cristiano Ronaldo’s recent international century. In this exclusive interview to Hindustan Times, the India and Bengaluru FC captain also spoke on life in the lockdown, dealing with a bio-secure bubble, why India’s games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan still haunt him and more. Excerpts:
It’s been over six months since you last played a competitive game. Is this the longest break in your career?
By far. We footballers, those who play for the country as well, keep whining about not getting enough rest but this time we got one. Not an ideal situation and I would never prefer such a long break.
How was the lockdown?
The day it was announced (March 24)… I thought, you know what, maybe one month, maybe two. I was (also) a little more insensitive and selfish, thinking about myself; thinking I would not be able to train outside; why is this happening. Probably after half of April I realised it’s much bigger than my training and going out.
It made me calmer and kinder. It was a shame that I was crying about not training… when people were fighting for their lives, for the next meal, for shelter. It really shook me. (Cyclone) Amphan followed and then the Assam floods and you kept seeing and hearing about people losing lives, livelihoods, coming out on roads not knowing what to do. At that moment, I was thankful for the kind of life I have. My wife (Sonam) and a few of my teammates tried to help. We have a lot more than what we need.
I made use of whatever I could inside my house to train. I had a few dumbbells, bands and a small space inside my house. And I looked back on the one month when I was whining.
What changed in the way you trained once the lockdown eased?
Initially, the restlessness was also because I am not getting any younger though I generally try to stay away from such thoughts. (Chhetri turned 36 in August). Mid-May I travelled to Ballary where we have our institute (Inspire Institute of Sport) which has amazing facilities. I trained for about two weeks there, came back for a week to rest and went again.
I realised that this (the break) was a very welcome change because you never get time to train on specific body parts or movements. I had a thorough check-up to see what niggles I was neglecting. I don’t remember playing completely pain free for the last so many years. A sore hamstring had been bothering me (from) after the Asia Cup (January, 2019) so I took an injection before the lockdown and was advised a complete break for one-and-a-half months. I started rehab on my left hamstring and while I was doing it, I realised there were so many other parts I could work on. Not saying that I am going to score plenty of goals again but I feel better physically. I have also realised the importance of rest, especially at this age.
How do you rate Cristiano Ronaldo reaching the landmark of 100 international goals?
That guy is a monster when it comes to scoring goals. We started our careers at the same time (2002) and he has been such an inspiration. The Ronaldo who came to Manchester United had a lot of dribbling, trickery, playing more on the wings and making more assists. Slowly and steadily, he became a goalscoring monster (who) dribbled less getting into the box. He has so many attributes but for me, the best are the runs that he makes inside the box and his headers. The way he has changed his game according to the teams he has played for has been just extraordinary. And the best part is… He is 35 plus and still the main guy in the team. I see on social media about his diet, his training and how he is just mad about improving every day and it is something I have learnt from.
How do you explain his longevity?
The most important factor is the hunger: you have to want to still want it. Apart from the World Cup, he has won everything but to still get up and be the most hardworking, that’s unbelievable. Once you play the game for so many years, you have a lot of knowledge and if you can mix that with the same kind of desire you had when you were 17 and with the information that is now available…The top players get so much of help. When I started my hamstring rehab, I had three doctors calling me everyday and two physios giving me exercises. If I join that with whatever desire I have, life becomes easier. That is why you see players playing the same way even when they are 35, across sport.
In your time the landscape of Indian football changed. But do you think there are enough jobs for Indian players and coaches today?
I will not be able to comment on the coaches but players, definitely yes. I know there are talks about Indian stopper-backs and strikers not getting enough chances, which is partially true. But if you see the larger picture, many more players can think about taking football professionally. If you add the I-League and the ISL, the opportunities are more. But since we want to reach at least the top 10 in Asia soon, we compare ourselves with the best teams. And that’s where we find a lot of things missing.
Talking about this season, how different do you think the ISL will be?
There will be a lot of testing and it will be very strict. Via your medium, I’m telling all the boys who are going to be involved — please be sensible. It’s not easy to be inside a bubble for five-six months; more so for the young ones. Fossils like me are ready to just sit in a room and relax but for the safety of the league, we all have to be very sensible.
How do you think players are going to mentally cope with the situation?
As far as our club is concerned, what we’re trying is to first assess the kind of the ground that we are going to get, the hotel where we can move, how much we can move, what’s the bubble like, and then create as much space as possible. We’re trying to — and I hope other clubs don’t copy this — fix a volleyball court for hand volleyball and foot volleyball inside the premises. We are going to have a gaming room where there’ll be different board games. We will try to have different kinds of seminars, not only on sports but also on, say, financial education. My club is going to kill me that I’m just telling everything and people are going to follow this now!
I just hope that the clubs can find a way of manoeuvring as much as possible inside the bubble, just so that we can sustain the five-six months. For everyone, the mental game is very, very important. You don’t want somebody to give up and crack.
Social media commemorated the one-year anniversary of the 0-0 draw in Qatar (September 10, 2019) but even with that surprise result, India have just three points from five matches in the qualifiers.
I don’t think there is anyone in the country who is more sad and depressed about that because this probably is my last shot at the World Cup qualifiers. The Qatar game gave me so much hope. That is what is possible if we have the right boys, the right coaching, the right mentality. It wasn’t a fluke that you go to Doha, play against one of the best teams in Asia, and churn out that kind of performance.
From there, to play the way we did against Bangladesh at home and Afghanistan away, it was such a low. And let me start blaming the ones who are responsible. It is no one but us players, and especially our strikers. I still remember there was a corner with the score 1-1 against Afghanistan. And I missed from point-blank range. I still remember the Bangladesh game where we missed so many chances. You can’t blame anyone else. I think the last eight minutes against Oman (leading 1-0, India conceded two late goals and lost 1-2) should not have happened too. But that’s the way football is.
But the way I look at it now is every game we play, we want to try and achieve what we achieved against Qatar, not just result-wise but performance-wise. That is what we are capable of. And it will be so unfortunate if we don’t aspire to at least get that kind of performance.
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