Sunil Chhetri in the MLS: a Small Start for Indian Football

Sunil Chhetri, a 25 year old native from Delhi, signed for MLS outfit Kansas City Wizards this season after a successful trial period in March. With Arsenal scouting the subcontinent in 2008 and giving the opportunity for over a dozen 16 year olds to tour England last year as part of their recruitment programme, we are seeing further attempts to harness a population in excess of 1.2 billion people. Surely one or two can play football? Though this is a humble beginning – MLS is not the elite standard for the sport – I wonder if it could be the small first step required for Indian football to make a telling progression.

In March, whilst Sunil Chhetri was pleasing the Kansas City management, I was playing football with a group of thirty or so locals, in the village my mother grew up in, in India. I soon found out this was a daily occurrence in the couple of months of freedom these young men had from the responsibilities to their family’s farmland. The pitch (pitch is a very strong word; this was more a barren, dusty, almost-flat playing surface that the local school children used as a pitch) had two rusted sets of goal posts, no nets, no markings and the carcass of what looked like a dead chicken where the centre circle should have been. I was one of half the players on my team who had any footwear. As we started playing, more and more joined in, and soon enough there were probably 15 or 16 players on each team (I was later informed by an elder member of the team that my being a foreigner had roused a lot of interest). In those couple of hours of play, though I hadn’t heard any of it yet, all of Chhetri’s comments in his interviews resonated heavily with me.

Small one-twos, intricate steps, possession plays down the wings, full blooded tackles, and a relentless enthusiasm for, not just playing, but playing the game well. I was told by my animated team mates, gesticulating incessantly, ‘we want to keep the ball, play it left then to the right and we can move up the pitch together.’ These guys hadn’t seen Barcelona play, or the old Ajax teams. They didn’t know who Xavi, Guardiola, Messi or Cruyff were but the moment anyone hit the ball long without reason they were vilified in unison. It was refreshing and educating. It was also the most fun I’d had playing football in a very long time.

Sunil Chhetri was refused a work permit to enter England and play for QPR. I find this a ludicrous fact. The rules for a work permit stipulate that if the player (non EU, anyway) is a foreign international, his national team must be in the top 70 of the world rankings. India lay 156th at the time. Should this matter? Surely if you’re good enough for the Championship you should be granted a work permit, irrespective of nationality? The fallacy of denying a foreign player into the country to play for a professional football team yet to allow students from the same country to study and be employed is an infuriating inconsistency. It closed the door on a player who needed every opportunity he could get.

Now employed by Kansas City, Sunil Chhetri has spoken candidly about the state of football in India:

“There is talent…but then I came to England and America and I saw the kind of facilities players enjoy. No matter what level of player you are, you have to have normal necessities. I’m not asking for luxuries in our country; just a good ground and a good [training] facility.”

India only has one facility that qualifies as a FIFA authorised football ground. The Indian football league’s teams do not have their own independent grounds to train or play home matches on. There have been instances where scheduled football matches have been cancelled due to conflicts with cricket timetables and football pitches remarked for cricket purposes. There is an infrastructure honed, many argue understandably, to cricket’s needs. Football will never compete with cricket as a national sport but Chhetri’s argument is a very valid one: why should the popularity of cricket encroach on the basic development of facilities and youth programmes for football? The children I played with told me how there is no opportunity at all to develop football because finances, local and governmental, accommodate other sports leaving football enthusiasts to wane and stagnate. Chhetri passionately spoke of financing rudimentary development because the difference between India and, for example, Qatar is monumental:

“I played in the Asian games in Qatar…they had 30 training fields in the same locality. We do not have a single ground in our country like these. In Portugal, a third division team gives us a training pitch…we do not have a single ground better than that in our country…It’s not that we are lacking in one department, we are lacking in all departments.”

The interest shown by Manchester United in Asia and, recently, Arsenal’s venture into the subcontinent has stirred some popularity. Chhetri’s selection for the Kansas City Wizards is definitely a positive step for Indian football as more and more exposure is given to its first noticed success and, just as importantly, to the reasons why there aren’t more. I saw for myself the kind of talent present in areas of the most poverty. On grounds that you are more likely to twist your ankle on than run successfully there was a tangible desire to enjoy football and, even more poignantly, their enjoyment is dependent on trying to play well and improve.

“There is immense talent in our country…but if in the country, in the whole country, there is only one good ground that is given to the national team whereas every kid in America has a good ground to play [on]. It really makes a difference. It’s easy to say if you have talent you can play on any ground but it doesn’t happen like that, it makes a huge difference.”

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