~ Kunwar Deep Singh
It was more than a loyalty test for all the Indian football fans, who find their heart skipping a beat for the famous red half of Manchester, when Kansas City Wizards took on English Premier League giants Manchester United in an international friendly in Kansas City, United States. Almost all the Manchester United’s Indian supporters, who religiously follow the club, would agree that this test was way more tougher than the one screened on one of the reality shows on the television now a days.
The date was 27th of July, when all of the print medias in the country had Sunil Chetri, Kansas City Wizards and Manchester United on their illustrious sports page, and that too in the same article. The news was a big one, especially for all the folks following Indian football and the big branded English Premier League. Indian striker Sunil Chhetri was all set to mark his presence felt in the international arena as his Major League Soccer club Kansas City Wizards took on Manchester United in a pre-season friendly on July 25th. The Delhi boy of Nepali origin was seen competing on the field with legends of the game like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. For a change, Sports Journalists of our country were writing about the number of shots Chetri had on goal, the number of minutes he spent on the pitch in front of almost 77,000 strong fans.
Sunil Chhetri has been the golden kid of Indian football for a while now, with many tipping him as the heir to Bhaichung Bhutia. The Indian striker, who has impressed one and all with his abilities, was offered a trial stint with Coventry City, which is a English second division club. In fact, he could have made it to English Championship club Queens Park Rangers last year, had he not been denied a work permit by the British government. However, he was destined to make it to USA’s Major League Soccer, where he made his Kansas City debut as a substitute in an exhibition match against the University of Tulsa and made his first team debut in the Wizard’s US Open Cup qualifier match against the Colorado Rapids in April this year.
For a player who never wanted to be a footballer in the first place, it’s a significant achievement, after the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia and Mohammed Salim, to play in professional soccer league outside India.
Indian footballers have been slowly but surely announcing their arrival at the international level and are being called upon for trials by some good professional clubs in Asia-Pacific regions, Australia and MLS clubs in the United States, as well as Canada.
Meanwhile Churchill Brothers’ tall lanky defender Gourmangi Singh also had a trial stint with Australian A-League club Melbourne Heart FC and Indian goalkeeper Subrata Paul also made the long journey to Vancouver in February to attend a 10-day trial with the newly promoted Major League Soccer team Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Besides this, Indian coach Bob Haughton’s first choice midfielder duo NP Pradeep and Steven Dias too have received offers from various Malaysian clubs.
While Md. Salim was the first India footballer to join a professional football club, with the Celtic FC in the year 1936-37, our talismanic skipper Baichung Bhutia followed it with a stint at English Championship club Bury FC in 1999. Though one can say that the likes of Bhutias and Salims had limited opportunities, they are the prime motivating factors for the talented Indian youngsters. These young upcoming new generation of footballers in Team India can make the most of the opportunities that are thrown at them, just as Chettri has done.
As a result of Chetri‘s signing, Kansas City Wizards has become one of the most keenly followed soccer clubs, not only in MLS but the world over. With a the formal signing of India’s star soccer player, Sunil Chhetri, the Wizards gained the firmest of footholds in the second-most populous country on the globe. The club’s Facebook page is now red-hot and media requests have increased drastically. In the aftermath of the match with Manchester United, this not so very big club from a Midwestern state in the US, has gained fame exponentially. The signing of Chhetri, lest you be naive, was anything but a marketing ploy. A team lacking in attacking fortitude, actually could be on the right side of the MLS table by addition of Chettri to the squad.
Indian footballers, other than those who are in the National team, have been in the news off-late for all the right reasons. Recently, World’s leading sports goods manufacturer Nike had conducted a campaign ‘Write The Future’, wherein they sent scouts to all parts of the world in a bid to search for talented individual in the age group of 16-18 years. Two youngsters , namely Daman Dutta and Avvay Gujral , made it to Nike World Top 20 Future Talent List. It is a lively proof which testifies the fact that Indian youngsters are improving rapidly and are really passionate about this sport. Hidden behind this love for the beautiful game is a huge talent pool, and if given proper guidance, they will surely shine in the future. Avvay finished 5th worldwide and won a chance to train with the world famous Belgian club Anderlecht while Daman Dutta stood 16th and got a chance to train for 2 weeks with Liverpool FC in England.
So, finally good times can be foreseen for Indian football. With scouts keeping a close eye on the football league of seventh largest country in the world, we hope that THEY shop well and WE go through more such loyalty tests.