Few months back, Indian football fans were greatly enthusiastic when Sunil Chhetri signed two year contract with one of the biggest Portuguese football clubs – Sporting CP which would keep him there till 2014. However, his stint in first season has been extremely brief so far, as he played a total of 5 matches in his 7 months stay, in which 2 were pre-season friendlies and 3 came in league, where he barely saw 45 minutes of action, before being loaned back to Churchill Brothers. This has not gone well with AIFF Technical Director Rob Baan, who felt the striker was a “big flop”.
In this decade Sunil has been the face of Indian Football and his failure will be seen as the failure of Indian Football in general. And if he chooses to stay in India next season then it will hit the morale of other Indian footballers who are dreaming to make abroad. Players like Subrata Pal, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Mehtab Hussain and Gouramangi Singh are the ones who have already earned trials with foreign clubs in past, for them this situation will not be rosy if Sunil signs for an Indian club again. Leave aside the senior players, even junior players like the precocious talents Brandon Fernandes and Pratik Shinde will be demotivated after seeing one of their idols suffering from multiple failures abroad. If Chhetri does come back permanently, then his stints abroad will not be much different from Baichung Bhutia’s stay in English club Bury FC. Baichung, perhaps a more talented player than Chhetri at his prime, came back to India unceremoniously as his English club struggled financially.
Right now, Sunil Chhetri is with Churchill Brothers on temporary loan for the remainder of 2012-13 season,which is a wise decision. The Goan giants are fighting on multiple fronts in I-League, local league and AFC Cup and Sunil Chhetri is likely to find his name regularly starting XI. Even better, the Red Machines are in race of I-league crown, if won, it will be added to Sunil’s CV and string of good performances in AFC cup will bring his confidence back. As of now, he is performing well for them and scored twice on his Churchill Brothers debut, helping them beat Dempo 2-0 in the Goa Pro League. He also scored in AFC cup match against Semen Padang FC which ended in a draw before finding the net once against against S-League side Warriors FC during a recent 3-0 victory.
Sunil Chhetri is set to return to Portugal after the end of 2012-13 session, so if he continues his decent run he may play a highly decisive role in the number of silverware Churchill Brothers collect in the end. And if he continues the same performance in pre-season friendlies for Sporting CP then his chances to make start for them will increase and he may start more regularly. Having said that, Sporting CP’s current financial problems mean that they are likely to rely on their famous Academy to groom players for future, rather than giving chance to a foreign striker nearing his 30s. Indeed, Sporting CP’s youth team recently reached the semi-final of NextGen Series, which is a U21 version of Champions’ League. Sporting topped their group ahead of teams like Celtic, PSV Eindhoven and eventual winners Aston Villa. The Portuguese youngsters continued their impressive performances by blanking Liverpool 4-0 in second round and knocking out Tottenham Hotspurs in quarter-final. They were knocked out by Aston Villa in semi-final but managed to finish in a creditable third position after defeating Arsenal 3-1. Carlos Mané, Sunil Chhetri’s team mate, finished with 5 goals in the tournament.
If he fails to find his feet in Portugal, then Sunil Chhetri can try for another foreign club on loan from Sporting CP. This may not be that difficult if his performance is consistent and given that he is the Indian captain, other clubs are likely to be interested in him for marketing purpose. A middle-tier team in Segunda-liga may prove to be a very good option. In August, he will turn 29, and at this age if he spends most part of the season on bench then it will hurt him as well as Indian national team. In a recent match against Palestine his performance was ordinary and was substituted in between the match which is rare in the case of Sunil Chettri. His performance in AFC Challenge Cup also didn’t have the usual glitter of his performance with India.
As another alternative, he can target Asian leagues where he is likely to get more game time, like A-League or Thai League or West Asian leagues. Of course, he may not get desired salary there, but Chhetri will be able to learn more in a far more competitive league than I-League. With his performance in international level (37 goals in 65 matches), he has already proved that he is a potent goal scorer. He needs to find a club which suits him and provides him the opportunity to play more matches or he can try short spells in Singapore or Malaysia instead of India, just like Baichung did after his Bury FC stint, playing for Malaysian club on 2 occasion. And if that happens then it will be fruitful for him as well as for other Indian footballers who are dreaming to make a move in Europe. India Football team plays most of matches with Asian countries, so if they try to make a move in Asia then it will be better for them and for the country as they will get acclimatized with varied conditions and playing styles.
If Sunil Chhetri can perform well in an Asian club then it may open the doors for other clubs. If he understands this, he will find a way, if he doesn’t, he will wind up being one of the biggest tragedies of Indian Football, who made quite a buzz for signing foreign club, rather than playing for them.
Article Written by Preetam Anand