Simply put, Sunil Chhetri is here to learn. As only the third Indian to play professional soccer abroad, Chhetri is slowly making the transition to life as a member of the Kansas City Wizards. He made his first official appearance for the club in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against the Colorado Rapids but has yet to make his league debut.
Chhetri recently sat down with MLSsoccer.com to talk about his journey to Major League Soccer, his soccer bloodlines and the state of the game in India.
MLSsoccer.com: How do you think you are adapting to the play and just living in Kansas City?
Chhetri: I think initially when I came it was difficult because of the 12-hour gap and the kind of climate because it was quite cold when I came here. I was a little concerned because I was coming from a climate where it was 35 or 40 degrees Celsius [95-104 degreed Fahrenheit]. When I came, it was 45 degrees Fahrenheit so it was quite difficult. Now it’s quite a bit warmer.
MLSsoccer.com: Have they told you anything about what it is going to be like here during the middle of summer? You’ll probably feel right at home.
Chhetri: They say it will be very hot and are very intense about it, but I don’t think it will be a problem for me because in the places I’ve been we are used to quite hot places. I think the warmer it is the better for me so I’m not worrying about the summertime. The only thing for me now is to settle down, do my best in the training and try to improve.
MLSsoccer.com: How are things going in training so far?
Chhetri: I need to catch up on some things. I need to understand players, which is very important, and how exactly they play and their mentality. It’s going to take time.
MLSsoccer.com: What would you say the differences are between the I-League and Major League Soccer?
Chhetri: There is more pace here. The speed of the game is much faster than what we have in our country. It’s much more physical than what we have in our country. I think those two departments are the things that are very different from our country and MLS.
MLSsoccer.com: Can you describe what professional soccer is like in India?
Chhetri: We have a league where there are 14 teams. There is a lot of talent in our country. One billion people means a lot of talent, but the right nourishment at the right age is what we lack in our country. The kind of infrastructure, I can really say it’s poor. When we go out and see the kind of facilities that players here enjoy, I can really say the conditions in our country are poor for playing football. As far as talent is concerned, I don’t think there is any scarcity of talent. But we lack the infrastructure and the kind of facilities that players need to develop.
MLSsoccer.com: You are one of the first Indian pros to play outside of India. Will your experience show people that there is talent in India?
Chhetri: I really hope so. From a country that is 132nd in the world to one that is top 15 was a great leap. I think if not MLS and if not Europe, there are a lot of places that players can go and perform. As I said, for football to prosper, the infrastructure is not there. I think we are improving, but we are not there yet. Even if it’s not MLS or a European nation, they can still go to Australia. They can go to a place like Qatar or Japan, where they have great facilities. I think how much they can achieve really depends on how much they get. They can at least see how far they can go and where they stand with proper facilities. I really hope that me coming to MLS is going to pave the way for a lot of players to go abroad. We can go anywhere where we can learn more.
MLSsoccer.com: Where does soccer stand as far the sporting landscape in India?
Chhetri: What I can say is that soccer is really picking up, but it is not there yet. We lack good grounds, and normal things that are necessary for soccer in the U.S. It’s not there, and I think it’s really sad. Lately, after Mr. Bob Houghton, our national team coach, joined, we have really started believing in ourselves. The team has played well. We played around 35 matches, and we just lost four of them. But as far as the I-League is concerned and the clubs are concerned, there are a lot of issues.
MLSsoccer.com: How did you begin playing soccer? Tell me about your background with the sport.
Chhetri: My mother and my father were both natural soccer players. Everybody has to work had to get the initial skills, but to have the knowledge of the game I didn’t have to work hard. I think I already had that in me.
MLSsoccer.com: Your mother was a member of the Nepal national team.
Chhetri: She was playing for Nepal in her very early years, but then she got married and she had to quit. My mother and her twin sister used to play for Nepal.
MLSsoccer.com: Did you grow up kicking the ball around with her? Did she help impart that love of the game?
Chhetri: I wasn’t stopped from doing what I wanted, and I was always juggling whatever into my hands. I was always with the ball. I love the game. I never knew I could make a profession out it. I never thought I could make a career out it. I just played for the love of the game and things fell in the right places.
MLSsoccer.com: Still, it seems like you have been playing professionally for a long time. Have you been surprised where you have been able to take it?
Chhetri: It started when I played in a youth tournament. The main motive for me was to get a certificate that can get me into a good university. That was my whole motive. That I could get decent marks on my exams and have the national certificate to get into some good colleges. When I played the tournament, I was 16. I came back and Mohun Bagan, one of the major clubs in our country, saw me and signed me. I never knew how much you can earn and what kind of career you can have from soccer. Once I joined Mohun Bagan, I never looked back.
MLSsoccer.com: You had some trials in England. How did those experiences shape your journey here?
Chhetri: I was called by Coventry in January of 2007, but my club, East Bengal, didn’t release me. They released me on the 28th, and the 31st was the transfer deadline in England. I was there for three days and things didn’t work out. Then I had something with QPR. Everything was done. We signed the deal. But the FA didn’t allow me because my country didn’t qualify in the first 70 of the FIFA rankings. In the Championship in England, there is a rule that your country has to be 70 or better in the rankings. It was a big setback because my main objective was to go and see exactly where I stood. Then this MLS deal happened.
MLSsoccer.com: Now that you are here, is it a relief to have made the move and start testing yourself?
Chhetri: Very much. A football career is short. If I was in India and didn’t take this chance, I would be regretting all my life that I didn’t take my chances. I came here even though it’s difficult. My teammates have been very kind to me. The coaches have all been very kind, and I think there is a healthy atmosphere to learn. Whatever happens in the future, I am just going to enjoy my time here.