AFC Cup Q&A: Sunil Chhetri (JSW Bengaluru)

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Dhaka: JSW Bengaluru have begun their 2017 AFC Cup campaign in perfect style by posting three wins from three to open up a three-point lead on the Maldives’ Maziya Sports & Recreation at the top of Group E.

Captain Sunil Chhetri has again been influential, scoring the winner against fellow Indian side Mohun Bagan on Matchday One and, ahead of the 2016 runner-up’s away clash with Bangladesh’s Abahani Limited Dhaka, had a chat with India’s most renowned footballer.

Q: After three wins from three, how happy are you with your start?

That is pleasing, especially because Maziya are a tricky team to play away so three points there were vital. To beat Mohun Bagan, who are also contenders to go through this group, was good too. Also with the new rules that only one team goes through, it becomes vital not to drop points, especially at home.

Q: How important is it to keep the winning streak going against Abahani on Wednesday?

It’s very important because teams that want to qualify cannot drop points against them, so we can’t afford to do that. They’re not a bad side but I would expect our team to go there and be professional and get the three points.

Q: How do you assess Bengaluru’s performances so far?

As a team we have done well to churn out the three points but we can certainly do better. I think against Mohun Bagan it was the best we’ve played in the three games because we were down and came back to score two goals and dominated them. The win against Maziya was a very hard-fought victory and an away victory is always sweet.

Q: Against Mohun Bagan you scored the winner and the Allianz Goal of the Week, can you describe that goal?

When I get the ball on that side (for a free-kick) I generally go for the same post because the goalkeeper gives you so much space. But because he knew that he took a couple of steps towards that side so at the last minute I changed and because the free-kick was just outside the box I didn’t need to put too much power on it, just placement, and luckily for me and the team it went in.

Chhetri nets the winner in Indian derby against Mohun Bagan

Q: Last year you got so close to winning the AFC Cup then lost 1-0 in the final to Iraq’s Air Force Club. Can you describe the emotions of coming so near yet being so far?

Very disappointing. At the start of the tournament if somebody told us we were going to make the final we would have been very happy. But we have looked back at the videos many times. The first-half was very even but the second-half they were strong and scored, but at the end we missed an open goal. I think we had the chances and if we had taken them who knows what would have happened.

Q: You’ve scored a lot of important goals in this tournament, do you have a favourite?

The two goals against Kitchee [in the 2016 AFC Cup last 16]. At Kitchee it wasn’t easy, we conceded one goal and then came back for 2-1. Then we conceded for 2-2 but we scored again to make it 3-2 so the two goals I scored in that game were really important as we wouldn’t have reached anywhere if we hadn’t won that.

Bengaluru defeat Kitchee 3-2 in the 2016 AFC Cup Round of 16

Q: With Bengaluru’s impressive 2016 AFC Cup campaign and the national team’s recent rise in the FIFA World rankings, does that prove Indian football is on the up?

Yes, because we have worked really hard, but the last thing we want to do is be happy with ourselves and think we did something great. It’s just little jumps, we can’t think “wow” we’ve done something great. These are just small steps, the more we achieve the hungrier we have to be.

Q: What’s it like to be the most popular footballer in your country?

It’s like living a dream. If somebody had given me a pen and said, “Just write whatever you want for your future”, I couldn’t have written what I got. I’m very fortunate and I’m living a dream. I never, ever thought I could have achieved what I have – playing for my country, scoring for my country, it’s a dream and I’m honoured and privileged. I don’t take it for granted and I work really hard for it.

Q: Are there times when the fame and pressure gets too much?

There are times when you can’t take the criticism and all the people in your life, so you just want to shut down, but that’s a very small price to pay. I’ve got used to it with age. It used to bother me but it’s a very, very small price.

Q: Who’s the biggest joker at Bengaluru?

John Johnson is crazy, he’s a prankster and a crazy Englishman. Once he was coming back from the bath and was naked. The same day we had a lady who was meeting an official at our club. She didn’t know which door to go through and didn’t knock when she walked into the changing room. She saw him and just ran and he was like: ‘How the hell can she get in our changing room?’ She just left and is probably still running.

Q: Finally, can you think of three ways to describe yourself?

Hard-working, I hate losing and friendly.

Photo: Lagardère Sports