Sunil Chhetri to Sporting Lisbon : Looks can be deceptive

‘Sunil Chhetri signs for Sporting Lisbon’.

‘WHAT!’, ‘Are you serious?’, ‘No way!’.

Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri displaying his Sporting Lisbon team jersey at a press conference in New Delhi on Thursday.


 The statement and the reactions from two weeks ago. You could take any group of football fans from anywhere across the country..the reactions couldn’t have been too different. Of course, we forget that half-information can be dangerous.

For us Indians, it’s a big deal if a footballer from our nation even gets as much as a chance to give a trial overseas. Bhaichung Bhutia’s stint at Bury FC was a massive achievement for Indian football. Never mind that he played in the 2nd Division of  English football. When Sunil Chhetri signed for Kansas City Wizards in 2010, it was breaking news. One of our boys playing abroad is a matter of national pride. ‘He didn’t even play 5 competitive games for them? Oh atleast he wore their jersey!’ Chhetri’s failed trials at Glasgow left us fans with a huge sense of disappointment. He went all the way to Scotland, but circumstances ensured he didn’t even get a proper trial. Sad. If you think hard enough, whatever made us feel he could’ve  had a successful trial at a Champions League playing team? Similarly, whatever made us believe he has signed for  the same team that produced Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo? Time and again, little pieces of bait thrown at us make us forget that our players are not European quality. There are a myriad of reasons for that, but this post isn’t for analyzing Indian football.

Coming back to the second half of the said information. Chhetri had indeed signed for Sporting Lisbon, but their ‘B’ team. Third division, again. It’s easy to convince yourself that an Indian playing for the B-team of one of the biggest Portguese clubs is a massive deal, until you realize Sunil Chhetri is 28 years old. TWENTY EIGHT. Playing 3rd Division European football at 28 isn’t as shiny as it looks. But nonetheless, it is some progress from Mohun Bagan and JCT, of course. The remaining luster from the deal was stolen by Sporting Lisbon’s statement when they signed him.

 I quote..

“We have reached out to Indian football, aiming at its development in a market estimated by FIFA, to be of more than 20 million players, and in this context, Sunil Chhetri, captain of the Indian Football Association, an idol in that country, who symbolizes the dreams of all young players who aspire to play in Europe, will join the roster of the team “B”. With our experience in detecting and developing top players, we are ready, together with local partners, to find the best solutions to accelerate the development of football in India and find values that young people are likely to integrate in other stages of formation. A demonstration of the quality of our services reflects on our business value in one of the world’s most emerging markets.” 

 It’s extremely easy to spot the vested interest of the club while signing Chhetri. When most of your signing statement talks about a potential market in the player’s native country, things aren’t looking too bright. I am, by no means, against Chhetri playing for Sporting Lisbon’s B-team, but I’m genuinely worried. For two reasons. First, this may be a marketing strategy by the club which takes away a year or two from Chhetri’s career. The player has had a wonderful record for the national team and his clubs for the last few years. Warming the bench for a season for a 3rd Division team in Portugal isn’t exactly what I’d call a professionally brilliant decision. Sporting are clearly interested in the Indian market and the immense potential there. Quite naturally, they’d want to tap it and they’re going the right way. Chhetri’s Portugese dream might be lost in the building up of a new fan base. Secondly, like Bhutia’s stint at Bury FC, I’m not sure if a season at Sporting Lisbon B is going to help Indian football in any way whatsoever. Post Bhutia’s return, it was expected that Indian football would undergo a sea-change. From tactics to infrastructure to vision and what not. What happened? Zilch. I’m afraid a similar scenario is in store for us when Sunil Chhetri returns. Why?

 It’s very simple. Chhetri is definitely not good enough to make it into the first team. Even their reserves for that matter. I’ve watched him on the telly and live often enough to figure that out. He’s a wonderful player, but on Indian standards. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I genuinely don’t see that happening. The distance between the best India can produce and the mediocre stuff Portugal produces, is humongous. B-team and their bench won’t be helping his case much. Besides, Sporting’s statement, makes it seem like a marketing strategy anyway. So instead of helping Indian football, it might just affect it to a certain extent by keeping their best player away for a season or two. I mean, of course, he’ll turn up for the international matches and the tournaments India qualify for, but he would be away from the setup. Besides, a lot of the Indian national team play together even at club level. Sunil would miss out on that, thus hampering his level of understanding with his national team-mates.

   It’s a huge thing for an Indian to be playing for a Portugese team, especially one as big as Sporting Lisbon. The campaign is underway already and all of us are looking Lisbon-wards full of hope and excitement. But the whole thing has this aura of inevitable disappointment. Prove me wrong someone, and I’ll love it. In any case, we’re all proud of Sunil Chhetri , whether he cuts it at Sporting Lisbon as a regular player or not. I’d happily welcome him back at Mohun Bagan next season, or the one after that.

 ‘Yo listen, Chhetri has scored on his debut.’