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An Old Interview of Sunil Chhetri, Captain - Indian Football Team

( Health Magazine August 2013)
He’s a ball of energy on the football field, India’s foremost striker, the Little Wonder that every major football club in the nation including Mohan Bagan, Churchill Brothers and others vie for. Sunil Chhetri is the boy who has taken over from Baichung Bhutia to become India’s most prolific goal scorer.  Among his most brilliant plays – notching up 4 goals in his debut in the 2007 Nehru Cup and a hat-trick in the finals of Challenger Cup against Tajikistan that – gasp! – led India to qualify for the 2011 Asia Cup for the first time in 24 years!  He was also named Man of the Tournament in the Nehru Cup, 2012, after scoring 4 goals in 5 matches.

With so much freewheeling talent and skill to offer, it’s not surprising that Chhetri is the first Indian player to be picked up by the prestigious Sporting Clube de Portugal (Sporting Lisbon), which has produced world class players such as Ronaldo, Nani and Figo. Here, the 2011 Arjun Award winner and national team skipper talks to Health & Nutrition about pressures and pleasures of football.

What drives your passion for football?
There can be two hundred thousand reasons I can give you for why I love football but the simplest would be that it is the best game in the world! When you talk about sport, there are sports which require a lot of stamina, like say, running a marathon and there are sports which require a lot of brain work, like chess.  But here is a game which calls for everything – you gotta be quick on your feet, think and make decisions at lightning speed; you have to be skillful, you have to be speedy, you have to be powerful, you have to have stamina...

And then there’s the competitiveness, the adrenaline rush of winning, the despair of losing. On a regular day, you get up, you eat, you go about your business and you sleep. But on the football field you’re sweating, your heart is racing and every cell in your body feels alive, and is focused on one goal – to win! The game demands total involvement. You know something good happened that day as compared to just lazying around the whole day.  That’s why even when we sportsmen are advised rest, which is important to help our body to recover, we don’t like it! We don’t want a normal day. Soccer is the  only sport which can emotionally take you up and down to such extremes in such a short span of time! I don’t think any other sport can give you that kind of feeling.

Has playing for Sporting Lisbon made a difference to your game?
Yes! After I trained there and came back, I was much faster, much more agile. We are, after all, talking about the second best academy in the world. The Portuguese treat football like religion – the coaching is top class; the intensity at which we train is way beyond anything you can imagine in India. Plus each player gets the services of a nutritionist, a chiropractor, a psychotherapist. It’s from this academy world class soccer players like Figo, Nani, Christiano Ronaldo emerged.

Given your position as a striker and team captain how do you deal with the pressure of expectations?
There are different kinds of pressures a player has to deal with. Say you haven’t been scoring well or have missed a lot of goals lately and an important match is coming. If you keep listening and reacting to the media views, you won’t be able to do things which you would have otherwise. Let’s just say you played 13 matches and failed to score a single goal… oh, it’s horrible to even say it! That’s the worst thing that can happen to a striker. But the more you think about it, the more the thoughts prevent you from scoring. The only way to be able to score is to shut out the noise and break free from the negativity spiral. If you keep worrying about losing matches, about what the media is saying, the fans, the abuses, the lost honour… you will never be able to get back to what you are actually capable of.

 So I keep myself calm and don’t give too much importance to all the chatter out there. You gotta trust yourself, keep reminding yourself that you got to this point because you’re a player of some worth.

Then there’s the pressure of the game itself when a match is in progress. That’s something I’ve not always got a handle on. There is so little time to think or control your reactions. These are the times when I do lose my cool occasionally, do stupid stuff, swear a bit. I think all the players go through this phase. I’m getting better at restraining myself as I matured.

How do you deal with losing a match?
I take a day off, lock myself in my room and don’t talk to anyone. I do a mental post mortem of the match, analyse how I could have done better to work it out of my system.

I’m usually a happy-go-lucky guy, I don’t want to be sad and people around me don’t like to see me sad. Like I have never been this ways in my home because I have always played away from home (Delhi); but when my family comes over to stay with me and I have lost some match, Mom gets affected a lot by my moods.

How much of your success can be attributed to talent and how much to hard work?
During my early days in pro football I used to think being a gifted player was enough. After all, talent alone had got me into some of the biggest football clubs in the country. Then I was picked for the national team and that brought me to my senses. When you are in the national team, everybody is good enough. So to be a valuable player in the team, I really needed to work harder and smarter. Talent is the plum on the cake, so to speak.

Has your lack of height ever been a problem in heading a goal or receiving a pass?
Being tall is always an advantage, but I think I have managed to do headers fairly well. I’ve worked very hard on my jumps which helps a lot and scored a lot of headers both internationally and for the club.

What do you see are your biggest challenges right now?
To be injury free, to attain peak form and to be in the right frame of mind. There’s lot of pressure, a lot of sacrifices involved in being physically fit. You wish to achieve many things in life, travel around the world, eat great food, go pubbing, but you have to sacrifice these things for football.

If you can’t take the intensity of the training and the competition in the team, it can affect you mentally, destroy you physically. You need to have a positive frame of mind because we are 30 players in a club – all different individuals, different ranges of skills. Adjusting to a new club, new people and new places is always a challenge. You gotta push yourself to break the ice and get to know your team mates.  Everything has to be right for the team to succeed.

Why is India not rising in the world football rankings? Where are we lacking as a team?
This is a transitional period. We had a great six years when we were working as a team, but now a lot of seniors have gone. We have a very good coach in Wim Koevermans, but he has a new team, a new philosophy so, technically it takes some time to get results. I know, it’s frustrating for me too when we lose matches.

What I can tell you definitely is that our ranking of 150 does not show the true picture, because we never really get to play a lot of international friendlies. To measure our worth on an international level we’ve got to play in those important FIFA matches. Secondly, we’re just not widening our pool of talented players. We need to nourish potential talent the way countries like America and China do, to allow football to flourish in India.

Injuries are the bane of every soccer player. How bad have yours been?
My ankles are my problem areas. It started in 2007 and flared up periodically till last year.  I’ve had a ligament tear in both my ankles.
Sitting out for recovery was probably the most painful period I ever experienced. I’m an awful guy to be around with when I’m benched due to an injury. I get cranky, I don’t talk sense, I act stupid. Nobody likes me. What happens is, you are at the peak level of fitness and then you get injured and go down for 3 months. Now there are injuries where you can still train; like with a muscle strain in the thigh, you can still go to the gym, and work your upper body. But when it’s major, like a torn ligament, you’re not allowed to move! There’s a limit to how much TV and news a guy can take and I don’t want to talk to people. The only thing we players know is to play football and if we aren’t there playing it, then we are doing something stupid!

Then after the injury is healed there’s still the long journey to get fit enough to play.

Describe your diet.
Six to seven years back I used to eat a lot of protein like chicken and fish as I was really out of form.  Today half my plate is filled with vegetables (boiled or green salads), 25% is devoted to rice or pasta and the rest 25% chicken or fish.

 I have to keep my weight under 72 kg. Because we footballers eat so much of rice and pasta, even 4 days of no exercise – like say, the rest days between matches – brings about weight gain. As soon as I hit the 75 kilo mark and my BMI goes up to 11 or 11.5, I cut back on my intake and increase my training.

One Sunday a month I allow myself a cheat meal which could be burgers, Mom’s rajma chawal, even French fries which I’m not really fond of. People are actually shocked at the way I put away huge amounts of food!

What do you do in your free time?
Although football is fun, it’s also work. There’s a lot of anger and distress involved in it. So to unwind I play cricket, basketball. During my off-season, I may go swimming, trekking, rock climbing (which was a lot of fun) and river rafting.
I used to be a Sports Channel addict, but I’ve weaned myself now, and spend whatever spare time I have with my family and friends. And may be read a little, because bookish knowledge is one area I’m somewhat lacking in.

How has sport helped develop your personality?
Have you ever noticed those brash boys in school who make cheap comments, get into fights and act stupid? I used to be one of them! Now if I tell people this they don’t believe it but it’s true; I’m not just talking about being naughty, I’m telling you I was a horrible guy! I’d almost got to the point where my parents had lost all hope for me. The only thing that kept me stable was sports.

Football taught me things that no book, friend or family member could – how to behave with colleagues, girls, and teachers; it helped me become a better person.  This is why I meet a lot of kids and I tell them to take up a sport. To be a good sportsman, you have to develop team spirit; you learn to take the pressure and deal with the big things in life. You become calmer, wiser… it helps. Sport is the best teacher in the world.

He focusses on dynamic moves – loads of balance exercises, core workouts, catch ball; resistance exercises – band workouts, pushups, pull-ups, etc., and of course field drills, agility & speed training. Gym workouts are mostly for  form maintenance.

On rising – a glass of water, tea
Breakfast (1 hour before training) – oat meal porridge or muesli, a fruit
Lunch – pasta/rice, steamed veggies, fish/chicken
Tea – fresh juice/black or green tea without sugar, a sandwich/fruits/nuts.
Dinner – a big piece of chicken, steamed veggies, juice, and “rice and a couple of rotis if I’m training hard or have a match coming up.”

To get his injured ankles back in action Chhetri underwent loads of rehab including balance exercises using a Swiss ball and standing on one leg because “balance is very critical in soccer”.

“You gotta trust yourself, keep reminding yourself that you got to this point because you’re a player of some worth”


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