Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri is a once-in-a-generation player. He may not be as good as a lot of global footballers who are referred to as one, but in the context of Indian football, his is a vital presence.
To be the man with the most national caps in India and also be the team’s all-time leading goalscorer is an astonishing feat considering the obstacles budding footballers in India face.
With 72 goals for India, Chhetri is only behind the great Cristiano Ronaldo in the list of active international goalscorers, and even ahead of Lionel Messi. It is a statistic that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt considering the huge gulf in the levels at which Ronaldo and Messi operate compared to Chhetri and the quality of the opposition too.
But the fact that a player from a country so far below in the international pecking order is included in any sort of comparison – however farfetched it may be – with those two modern-day greats, shows that he has done quite a few things right.
Even at 35, Chhetri remains India’s talisman. Without him, the team isn’t quite the same. Despite the progress in Indian football over the past few years, the nation has failed to produce a player that could fill his boots when he calls it a day.
Chhetri has led the dietary and fitness revolution witnessed in Indian football of late, turning vegan and completely eliminating sweets from his diet. But there’s more to his success than mere physical improvement.
The Indian captain’s consistency is a reflection of his character and mental toughness.
Scroll.in interviewed Sunil Chhetri, who signed a three-year deal with global sports brand Puma on Tuesday, about his mental preparation ahead of a game and also his way of dealing with the highs and lows that are part and parcel of the game.
Excerpts from the interview:
There is a famous story of Andrea Pirlo spending the whole day before the 2006 World Cup final playing PlayStation. What is your pre-game routine?
Now, I like to be a lot calmer. When I was younger, I did many things but now my pre-match routine is very monotonous and boring. I do the same things before a game. I try to get as much sleep the night before. I get up later than when I generally get up.
I just try to stay calm. I don’t take too many phone calls, not see too many things on television, not hear too many things, and try to eat the right food. Everything is according to what I need at my household from the time I sleep to the amount of water I drink. Everything is very particular on a match day. And I like it. It’s boring but it works.
Apart from the training sessions and team meetings, are you always thinking about the upcoming game or do you switch off for a bit?
I think even if I want, and it’s a very individualistic thing, I cannot completely switch off from the game. Of course, when the match is near, you think more about the game, the opponent and what not. But I think even on normal days, you are always thinking about the game.
What I like to do is before going to sleep is try to analyse the whole day in terms of my training, in terms of what I ate and in terms of my rest. Sometimes, it takes a long time, sometimes it short. It’s not completely meditation but I do go back and think about what I did, what I should do, what I forgot.
It’s like a to-do list in my head that I go and check. If there are any shortcomings I try to rectify the next day, make sure I’m doing it right and I try to do it more often. So it’s not very serious but I do think about how my day went as far as my training.
You mentioned you are a lot calmer before games now. Can you tell specifically what has changed over the years?
Earlier when I was younger, I wasn’t too particular about the timings at which I was eating on a matchday or day before that. I was sleeping slightly late. It happens when you are younger as you are doing so many things. You are more fickle-minded, your mind is everywhere but as you grow older and you experience things and you figure out what works for you and stick to it.
Now, I don’t mess with my sleeping timings, I don’t go out, not because I don’t like it but because that’s the way the routine is.
I enjoy my off days, I do enjoy my vacation but on a match day or when a tournament is going on, I stick to very boring stuff. Even when it’s about eating, you don’t take too many chances of eating things that you generally shouldn’t eat. So all these small minor details are what changes when you grow older because you know exactly what works for you.
When you are younger you may talk more on the phone or you may be playing a PS game and you do too many things. But when you are older you know exactly what you’re doing and you stick to it.
You said you don’t like to take many phone calls on matchdays. Has there been a time when you’ve had to zone yourself out even from family members?
The family totally understands my matchday rituals. Unless there is something very serious, we don’t talk.
It’s not about zoning yourself out but about not taking in too much information. When you are talking to somebody when you are using social media, you are taking in so many ideas, people’s opinions, there are so many things.
On a matchday, I don’t like it that much. I want to stay with myself and not think too many things. I try to stay away from too much information anyway, but especially on a matchday, I keep the phone away. I don’t advertise it as I don’t know what people like, but it works for me.
You have been a captain of your club and country for many years. So, you would have to speak to players before the game as well. So how do you do that and also keep the focus on what you have to do personally?
The good thing is I don’t have to talk to the players a lot. I think they understand and follow more by (following) action. So, I try to be a good example. Right from behaving well on the pitch and off the pitch. Doing the right things, coming on time, eating the right food, giving everything on the pitch and all these small things I try to do well.
I feel that’s how the boys follow more than lecturing them. Of course, I speak team to them once in a while when I think they need to be spoken to. However, one thing I have learnt as a captain is knowing when not to speak but then also know when to speak. I think that is very important.
There would have been many times when you have felt low maybe because of the team’s results, individual form or even external factors. How do you cope with that?
Whenever I feel I’m sad or feel a bit low before a game, I tell myself that this what you want to do all your life. It’s something that only a few of us are blessed with. To play football, to earn money, be a professional player and on top of that to play for your country is a dream. Everyone would die to be in your place.
So there’s no point being sad, and I must enjoy. It’s not going to stay this way for long. Footballers’ careers are not very long. So I tell myself to just enjoy it and give my best as there are very few who have this opportunity.
How much time do you need to recover from a game mentally?
I think when we win a game, I recover very fast. When I lose a game, I take a little bit more time. With age, I have learnt to not be too negative about it and think about what I can learn. When I was young I used to get more miffed and angrier but now I try to learn from the mistakes because I think failure teaches you more than success.
Can you remember an occasion or a game where it has taken much longer for you to recover from?
There are many games. And it’s not only when I lose but also when I don’t play particularly well. One game recently that comes to my mind was that game against Afghanistan away from home when I missed that header. It kept haunting me for a long time.
I have missed so many goals, I have lost so many matches, I’ve got injured badly in the past so it happens and happens all the time. That’s the good thing about sports. You can’t be carried away and think that you are everything. One day you are on people’s shoulder and they’ll think you are God and the next day they are going to abuse you.
There have been many days when I’ve been miserable, locked myself and thought about what happened in the game.
The only thing that I do better now is that I don’t speak too much after the game because when you are angry or when you are sad, you say a lot of bad things not just to your team but also at your house when you are with your family. You don’t want to say things that hurt.
So after a game, I just try to keep quiet and do my ritual of an ice bath, eat food and sleep. And the next day when I get up, I am a little bit calmer and then I analyse the game.
Sportsmen have a habit of thinking too far ahead of themselves. After being in the sport for 17 years, have you started to think more about Indian football on a whole and what you can contribute after retiring or you prefer to stay in the present?
I won’t say I prefer to stay in the present as it’s the only way I know. I am not capable of thinking too far. That’s why my targets too are like ten days. I just think about the next ten days, the next tournament and that’s it. And when the time comes when I will have to contribute to Indian football by not playing I will start to think about it. That’s the way I have always been right from my younger days.
Where do you look at Indian football in the next few years, especially after the progress we have made and also played in an AFC Asian Cup?
First of all, I really want to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup. It is something I feel we should qualify every time as it gives us the opportunity to rub shoulders with the very best. You play teams like UAE, Bahrain, Japan, South Korea and all the big guns. So we have to work hard and qualify for it every time. And every game that we play for the national team, we must try to improve ourselves and as soon as possible be in the first rung of Asia and be there. That is the realistic target.