For the last twelve years or so, Sunil Chhetri has been a central figure in India’s footballing journey, in the process becoming the country's highest ever goal-scorer with 51 international goals.
He will have another chance to rewrite the history books next Wednesday when he leads I-League champions Bengaluru FC against Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta’zim in the AFC Cup semi-final, as the Blues face one last hurdle in their bid to reach the final of the competition. No Indian team has achieved that feat yet.
“Yes, it is the biggest game of my club career,” Chhetri told Scroll.in. “It is simply because we have a chance of going where no Indian club has been before. I’ve never been in a situation like this. We’re putting the country on the Asian map and it’s a very big deal.”
The Bengaluru based club saw a change in personnel during the summer break as former Barcelona assistant coach Albert Roca took over the reins after Ashley Westwood left following a highly successful stint.
The first leg, which was only the third game the team played under Roca's tutelage, ended in a 1-1 draw, with the Indian outfit scoring an important away goal. While most Asian leagues run in sync with the AFC Cup, India's I-League clubs have to play the knock-out stage matches during the off-season. The former East Bengal striker concedes that this has been a major challenge for his side.
What are the challenges?
“It’s definitely been a disadvantage, but one that we’ve worked on and used in our favour," said Chhetri. "Most teams we have come up against in the knock-out stages have been playing tough oppositions every weekend. Our first competitive game this season (after the I-League) was the quarter-final against Tampines Rovers."
"Also, much has changed at the club with the new coaching staff and some new players coming in. It has been tough but the way the boys have responded has been fantastic and the fact that we’re within reach of a place in the final is testament to that,” he remarked.
With an away goal in the bag already, a clean sheet in the home match will be enough. What should help is that Johor will be missing their two lead strikers, Jorge Pereya Diaz and Juan Martin Lucero. The duo, who are both suspended for the second leg, have netted a total of 33 goals in the domestic league so far, and occupy the top two positions on the scoring chart.
The former India national team skipper however denied that this will be a major advantage. “To think that JDT is all about their two foreign strikers would be nothing but stupidity. They have some real quality and I’m saying this from having played them four times now. The only advantage we have – and a slight one at that – is the away goal. This is a fresh 90 minutes and you can never tell the script days before”.
The final frontier
Ever since the current format for AFC Cup was adopted in 2004, only three Indian clubs have been able to reach the semi-final. But while the general notion is that I-League clubs have underperformed at the big stage, Chhetri didn’t want to generalise the trend.
“I’d agree and disagree in equal measure. There have been seasons or games or stages when clubs from the country could have done better, but the competition isn’t the easiest. There are some really good teams out there and you’ve got to be consistent through the tournament if you’re going to leave a mark. But things are changing and for the better. Bengaluru FC made the Round of 16 in our first season of Asian football and now we’re in the semi-final.”
While AFC Cup is the second tier competition in Asian club football, the Asian Champions League (ACL) hosts the strongest outfits of this continent.
No Indian club has reached it to the group stages of the ACL ever, and Chhetri warned that we may have to wait a few years more to see an Indian club going past the group stages in that competition. “As optimistic as I want to be, it’s going to be some time before we start being a force to reckon with in the Asian Champions League. The quality of teams is really high. But before we get talking about the Champions League and aspirations there, we need to start stamping our authority on the AFC Cup,” he said.
The 32-year old Chhetri played for six different I-League sides before signing for the JSW group co-owned Bengalur FC. He was one of the first players to join the newbies, and has been witness to – and participant in – the side’s dramatic ascent to the top of Indian football.
When asked who among the Bengaluru FC players would make it to his dream squad, the skipper answered he would like to include all of them. “I may sound very diplomatic with this answer but strangely it is the truth. I’d never be able to answer this question and be satisfied with it. Bengaluru has been a wonderful and a very special chapter in my life and I’m still not done writing it. We’re such a tightly knit unit and I would love to have the whole squad on my list – for footballing reasons and otherwise. Everyone has a role here and it’s always taken the coming together of everyone for us to be successful.”
With the fans already buzzing with excitement, the India international made it clear that the team is not even thinking about a defeat. “Before I even begin to tell you what a win or a defeat would mean to me and us, let me remind you that this club is three years and a few months old. What we have achieved so far is phenomenal and a win would be our single greatest moment till date, simply because we would have taken Indian club football to somewhere it has never set foot before.
"It would mean so much to me personally, the club and everyone who is connected with it and the fans. But most importantly, it would be a great advertisement that Indian football can really do with now. If this ends in defeat, we will be gutted, to put it simply. But we aren’t even thinking about defeat. We’ve given ourselves a good chance to progress and we need to go out there on the 19th and grab that half chance and make it ours,” he said.
A fortunate path?
The AFC Cup has historically been a happy hunting ground for West Asian Clubs. In the first eleven editions, only eight countries, namely Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Kuwait, Uzbekistan and Iraq have been represented in the final. Johor were the first club to break the hoodoo, but only after they were given a walk-over in the semi-final last year following the suspension of Kuwait Football Association.
The Indian clubs’ showing against the West Asian clubs has been largely abysmal, and their progress in the tournament has most often been halted by clubs from Kuwait, Lebanon and Bahrain.
Said Chhetri, “While the West Asian clubs are a bit stronger, I wouldn’t really say that not facing them has made our journey easier. It’s been a battle from the start, after we got off the blocks a little slower than we would have liked. Again, we haven’t come up against teams from the West, so I wouldn’t like to discount us! But I would agree that they are lethal and possess a superior quality to the teams from other regions.”
The talismanic striker acknowledged the roles played by Westwood and former assistant coach Pradyum Reddy in the club’s journey. “Whether they call or text or not, I’m certain they will want this best from this team. They’ve played a big role in getting us to the quarters and everyone knows and respects that.”