After the strong performance of India U22 team in AFC U22 Cup qualifiers, Indian football fans got some more good news in the form of ace striker Sunil Chhetri signing for Sporting Lisbon B team.
Along with Porto and Benfica, Sporting are one of the big three clubs in Portugal with 19 league titles and 17 domestic cup titles. The Verde-e-Brancos also won 1963/64 Cup Winners Cup after defeating Hungarian club MTK Budapest in final. Sporting already had an influence in Indian football as Sporting Clube de Goa’s name as well as club crest was inspired by Sporting. With the signing of Sunil Chhetri, they will aim to make a larger impact on Indian football. For Chhetri, it will be a personal high and a shot in the arm after his failures in Coventry City and Rangers trials and unsuccessful stint in Kansas City. However, how much this transfer deal will help Indian football in long run, remains to be seen.
One first needs to understand the concept of a ‘B’ team in European clubs. In some European leagues, clubs usually have a reserve team or B team which is mainly used to groom young players or give match practice to players who are coming back from injuries. Indian football fans have already seen the Bayern Munich reserve team which came on a tour few years back. Some countries have a separate league for reserve teams, while in countries such as Portugal and Spain, B teams are allowed to play in lower divisions. Players who do well in the B team are often promoted to senior teams. For example, Cristiano Ronaldo, after graduating from Sporting’s academy, quickly rose through the ranks to play for both B team and then the senior team in same season.
Indian football fans, who are expecting Sunil Chhetri to see in action with Sporting Lisbon senior team are likely to face disappointment. As of now, Sunil is likely to be part of the reserve team and it is not even clear that he will get first team action in reserve team either. Chhetri will also need to raise his club form in Portugal. For a player who has been prolific for the national team, Chhetri’s club career has been largely underwhelming. Even last season, he endured a torrid time in Mohun Bagan and failed to utilize several clear cut chances which came his way thanks to Odafa. Chhetri somewhat regained his form in last few matches of the season but mainly played as a playmaker in midfield. His form in MSL never reached the expected level and he cannot afford to repeat that performance in Sporting.
Sporting senior team usually plays a 4-2-3-1 formation with a lone striker upfront. Last season the role of this lone striker fell to Dutch youngster Ricky van Wolfswinkel. The 23-year old striker was sensational in his first season and scored an impressive 26 goals in 46 matches for Sporting. Till now the FC Utrecht striker has done complete justice to his 5.4 mE transfer fee and it is unlikely that he will be dropped when fit. Van Wolfswinkel might be an insurmountable obstacle for Chhetri but Sporting’s other strikers are still unproven. 21 year old Peruvian Andre Carrillo scored just 2 goals in 23 matches last season, while 19 year old Chilean wonder-kid Diego Rubio is yet to become a regular in first team. Another 21 year old striker Wilson Eduardo has been loaned out to multiple clubs in past few seasons but has not managed to impress a lot.
18 year old sensation Bentinho is likely to be biggest competitor of Chhetri in the reserve team, unless he gets promoted to first team this season itself. The Portuguese striker scored 6 goals in 6 matches in the highly rated NextGen series and has also notched up a jaw-dropping 14 goals in 18 matches for U19 Portugal team. Scoring goals was a problem for Sporting last season as they found the net just 47 times in 30 league matches, so a loss of form for other strikers may give Chhetri an outside chance. It is quite evident that Sunil Chhetri will have to raise his game considerably, if he wants to make a fruitful career in Portugal.
There still remains an apprehension regarding this deal. Was this really a deal which was brought about because of football skills of Chhetri? Performance of Chhetri in last 2 seasons has been strictly ordinary, unless one considers the SAFF Cup which has some of the weakest teams in the world participating. Baichung Bhutia, at his peak, was easily the best Indian footballer in last two decades but even Baichung struggled to make an impact at modest Bury FC in England. There are some concerns that this deal was solely due to financial reasons rather than commendable football skills of Chhetri.
Sporting Lisbon has not won the league title in over a decade and their participation in Champions League has also taken a beating in last few years. They have taken a backseat to Benfica and Porto in domestic scene, while the recent rise of Braga has brought their top-3 position under threat. Last season, Sporting tried a complete revamp of their squad and were one of the busiest clubs during transfer window. Sadly, their new signings failed to have intended impact as they finished 4th, outside UCL spots and a massive 16 points behind champions Porto. An appearance in Europa League semi-final was somewhat a consolation for their season.
There are talks about financial problems in Sporting and Sunil Chhetri’s signing might be a ploy to capture the lucrative Indian market. In recent times, India has emerged as a potential football market for European clubs but sometimes it feels like India is just that – a football market. It is still unclear if European clubs see India as a potential powerhouse in Asian football or just a market. Indeed Sporting’s official statement regarding the deal begins with the sentence – “Sporting Clube de Portugal has made a ground breaking step into one of the world’s most expansive football markets” and doesn’t talk about Sunil Chhetri’s exploits on the field. Some sources have also reported that Sporting are looking for investors in India and China to bail them out of financial problems.
If (and that is a very big if) Sunil Chhetri does break into Sporting Lisbon’s first eleven, then it is unlikely to bring any swift change in Indian football. The administrative problems related to Indian football are far too deep rooted to be eradicated by the success of a single player. It might bring some spotlight on Indian football though. The news of Sunil’s transfer had itself created quite a stir among the sizeable population of football fans in India, who prefer judging everything based on association with a European club. For few minutes Sunil Chhetri was the trending topic on twitter, something you don’t see every day. Overall, at the age of 27, this is quite a risky move for Sunil Chhetri and only time will tell if this move is indeed a new start to Indian football or another flash in the pan.