In an exclusive chat with G20, India’s ace footballer Sunil Chhetri talks about football, and how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the dynamic of the game on and off the field.

 

The beautiful game is alive in the sublime crosses and amazing ball play that Bengaluru FC skipper and Indian captain Sunil Chhetri is an expert at. Always thinking steps ahead, passing with a precision that stops you in your tracks, and striking with a tenacity that is as determined as it is talented, Chhetri is purposeful as BFC takes on the other ISL teams in this surreal world amidst the pandemic. His fluid movements as the ball sees the back of the net are what fans revel in. The 36-year-old empowers his team and country when he plays football. During the pandemic too, Sunil is instilling confidence and spreading joy as BFC win another game, their second, after three draws, against Kerala Blasters.

The travel bubble has taken a toll on all sportsmen, and Chhetri too has seen this at close quarters when BFC and the other teams had to change their training and playing schedule to be based in sunny Goa, yet unable to take in the respite its sandy beaches have to offer.

“It’s been a strange and unprecedented year on every possible front and we can only be grateful that we’re playing this season. On a preparation front, it has not been ideal, but we cannot complain. Teams would have liked a longer pre-season to get fit. Foreign players and staff across clubs had a hard time getting visas and flights to join their teams. They all came in batches, had to quarantine for two weeks, and then training. Every day lost is vital, and all clubs have lost more than just a few days. We have all had to improvise and adapt. We’re just glad to be able to get back on a football field and play the sport we love,” says the BFC skipper.

His team has played some matches yet there are miles to go to clinch that coveted ISL trophy. The footballer who has been named AIFF Player of the Year a record six times would ideally love to see the Blues grasp the coveted silverware at the end of the season given that BFC has been the most consistent team through seasons, but Chhetri also admits that all the teams are still finding their feet, studying opponents and looking to hit 100 percent. “One of the hallmarks of BFC is that it is in the DNA of this club to compete for titles. We’ve won six trophies in seven seasons, and have come very close on a few other occasions too. We have an extremely competitive squad and if we play to our strengths, we could be in the mix, come March,” he adds.

With chaos prevailing as many teams adjust to new players, the one thing BFC has going for them is its core strength, and Chhetri agrees, “We’re among the very few teams that keep retaining its core, which is a very good thing. We have an incredibly competitive squad this season with good options in every area of the pitch. We also have some talented youngsters that have come through from the reserve team,” says the captain and mentor who speaks less at team meetings. “No one wants to keep listening to you preach. You have to let your actions do all the talking. That’s the route I try to take,” Sunil says.

A team that has often been called out for their defensive play and Chhetri, delves deeper, “Football games have passages of play. We got off to a good start, picked up a goal and then another. Then Goa – who are a very good team – had their passage of superiority and made it count twice in three minutes. Against Hyderabad, we could have done better with our attacking. This is something we changed against Chennaiyin (and Kerala Blasters) and got our reward in way of our first win. This is a strange season that has gotten underway through difficult circumstances, and it is going to take teams more time to get into rhythm,” he adds. BFC is known for their prowess in set pieces and Chhetri adds, “Sure, set-pieces have been our strength, but that isn’t to say that we lack goal scoring opportunities in open play. What we need to work on is converting all those chances we create. I believe it will come with time.”

Even as ordinary folk struggle in a Covid era, the bio bubble can restrict and deplete energy, especially for sports teams that need to let off steam after a fixture, and Chhetri says, “It is what it is. Of course, it does get frustrating, but like I said before, we’re happy that we are playing the sport we love, again. So if it means life in a bio-bubble for six months, so be it,” says the footballer who spent some time at home, then moved to the BFC facility in Bellary to train in isolation, and focused on getting fit before the ISl started.

An avid reader, his tweets are recommendations on various of his interests, be It book, movies and or even documentaries that he feels have left him richer. For instance, A Life On Our Planet by Sir David Attenborough Sunil avers is riveting, fascinating and daunting. “What Sir David Attenborough’s done and continues to do to is create awareness about life around us. That is monumental. Imagine spending 60 years of your life studying nature and bringing it to us! His work leaves us with some serious food for thought. It compels you to make the right choices,” adds the BFC skipper.

The bubble in Goa has changed the ISL and now teams cant travel, are cut off from the fans. A fantastic training pitch and games taking place smoothly enthuses Chhetri. “I must commend the club and the league on the way they have organised the season. Our restriction is very limited even in the hotel. We have a nice recreation room where we catch up for a game of table tennis, carom and card games. Some of the lads and staff have carried their guitars, so we unwind with some good tunes. Between this, training and game days, our time flies,” he adds.

Maradona’s death left the football world bereft, and Chhetri also tweeted about his fortuitous meeting with the Argentinian, even though Sunil was too young when the great footballer’s games beamed live on TV. “But I’d heard enough and more from my father and then it was all highlights and old DVDs. He brought a lot of things non-football along with him through his career and beyond, but the moment he set foot on a pitch, he was 100 per cent magic. Maradona was the whole package. He was who he was because of the personality he exuded. I had the good fortune to meet him in Kolkata and he came on to the pitch to kick the game off. I remember everyone simply wanting to be as close to him as possible. You could sense his aura and that says everything you need to know about the man. I was in awe. At the end of it all, I will remember Maradona as a genius who enjoyed the game he played. He brought his magic to the pitch and found happiness in it. That’s my biggest takeaway from his life,” Chhetri concludes.