Former national coach Sukhwinder Singh was known to have a good eye for quality. His penchant for picking up untested youngsters for crucial encounters often brought him unexpected results; not to mention the setbacks that hurt the team at times.
Sukhwinder’s biggest success story perhaps was to offer a debut cap to a 20-year-old rookie striker for India’s high-profile tour of Pakistan in 2005. The boy, Sunil Chhetri, did not disappoint. And his tendency to amaze has lasted far beyond that three-match tour fifteen years ago.
In the past 15 seasons, Chhetri has assumed multiple roles in the national team. The undisputed leader, the most prolific goalscorer, mentor and the motivator. In the words of veteran coach Subash Bhowmick, “Sunil is now like a senior statesman. His presence itself is extremely important, no matter how he plays or how many goals he scores.”
Bhowmick is not far from the truth. Chhetri has spread his wings beyond the pitch. He has his own thoughts, his own views on current issues, on the state of Indian football, both at domestic and international level.
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Recently national coach Igor Stimac sounded truly desperate when asked about a lack of scorers in the Indian team. In fact, his desperation has grown over the months, his mounting irritation in replying to the stock question “who after Sunil Chhetri” a clear testimony. The quota of foreigners in domestic football has to be brought down; it is hugely important, the Croatian coach declares.
Interestingly, Chhetri himself has an answer to this problem. In his words, “a suggestion” only. He advocates the start of a “reserve league” parallel to the ISL that could partially solve more than one problem. From the absence of strikers to lack of match time for Indian players.
“I think eventually getting the 3+1 (foreigners) policy is good because in that case Indian boys are going to get more chances,” said Chhetri.
However, he hastens to add: “But I heard there could be some complications because they want to raise the standard of the league. Having foreign players has helped. Definitely. I think we have to find the right balance. Eventually we have to have three top quality foreigners and one top quality Asian player, so that more Indian players can play.”
Chhetri pauses for a few seconds and then says: “I can add one humble advice here. Till the time the five-foreigner policy remains, the one suggestion from my side is to play the reserve league.”
“Let us suppose FC Goa plays Bengaluru FC at our home. When FC Goa travel here and if Manvir (Singh), Jacki (Jackichand Singh) or Len (Lenny Rodrigues) do not play for some reason, then right after the ISL game, the next day, there could be a reserve match between the two teams again. So players, who have not played for the two teams in the ISL tie and are fighting for places or coming back from injury, can play there.”
The Indian captain feels it will also help the national coach form an idea about his possible probables.
“In this scenario, the coach knows that Manvir with 15 or 20 reserve games under his belt, whenever he comes back, can play a game. If you don’t play a match, how does anybody know how good you are? Until we rectify the foreigners’ rule and go back to 3+1, which lots of developing Asian countries do, I think the reserve league will be a very good idea.
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“Young players, who do not get a chance to play in the ISL, the next day only they play the reserve match. It will not add too much to the cost. Because 18 boys travel anyway. Just travel with five or seven more. Eleven will play the ISL game….may be 13 or 14 and the next 11 play the reserve game. You don’t have to make a new calendar.”
“Even if someone has not played too many ISL matches, he would have had 15 matches and a good number of goals against his name. The reserves will get quality competition and play more matches,” says Chhetri.
Well, certainly an idea worth a second thought. Chhetri is confident that more and more Indian strikers could emerge through this system. “A competitive reserve league will help solve the problem of a lack of goalscorers,” he says.
“Let’s take the case of Jobby (Justin) or Balwant (Singh). If strikers do not play many games, how will they score? Scoring is a habit. Why do Sunil Chhetri, Miku or Coro always score? Because they have been doing it for a long time. It’s a habit. You know when this is the way things are going, this is the way I can score.
“I have missed maybe a thousand goals to end up scoring around 400. When you miss that many goals, then you end up scoring some too. But those who never get a chance to play, they can never score. They say after every four misses you score one goal. So, the advice is to make five attempts in a match. Lots of things get added to your arsenal,” he says.
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In the end, Chhetri is all for expanding the season with more and more tournaments, one may be in the style of the FA Cup. This one tournament could accommodate all teams from ISL, I-League and second division I-League, he suggests.
“After all, ISL clubs spend so much money and play friendly matches. They can play if there is one Super Cup or some tournament. Last season we sent Suresh (Wangjam) to Durand Cup and he gained so much confidence that he played so well in the end of the ISL.
“There should be one pre-season tournament. And there should be one like the FA Cup where you can incorporate teams from all the three leagues – ISL, the I-League and the second division I-League. May be from the third or fourth rounds the ISL club can join, from the second round the I-League teams will join, let the preliminary rounds be only for the second division clubs. Who knows even a second division club can keep winning and play against an ISL club….that would be wonderful,” says the scorer of 72 international goals.
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