“You are not good enough for the first team, get lost to ‘B’ team,” was what India football captain Sunil Chhetri had to listen to from Sporting Lisbon head coach when he joined the club in 2012.
Chhetri, then a 26-year-old, was signed by the top Portuguese side on a three-year contract but returned home after completing just nine months.
“After one week, I was told by the head coach ‘you are not good enough, get lost to ‘B’ team’. He was right. The pace in the Sporting Lisbon ‘A’ team was too fast for me (compared to) the Indian leagues,” Chhetri was quoted by indiansuperleague.com.
“I gave it a shot for nine months, played five games, without scoring any goal. There was a four or five million release clause. I was to be there for three years but I told the coach I wanted to go back to India and nobody is going to pay this amount, just release me. They were really nice,” said Chhetri.
First foreign stint
Chhetri’s first foreign stint was, however, with Kansas City Wizards of USA in 2010. He also had a disappointing time at the Major League Soccer side and he returned home within one year after playing just one game for the first team. He did not play any MLS game.
“I played six to seven friendly games, scored two hat-tricks and a brace and I just thought ‘I am going to start’. But we used to play 4-2-3-1 with a lone striker and (Kei) Kamara used to play. He is a big African lad and he was always chosen before me. So, I did not get the chance in first 4-5 games. I was so sad, I was not used to sitting on the bench.
“Then I had a lovely pre-season where I scored 14 goals in seven games. I thought I am going to start. But it did not happen for five games and I just started deteriorating. It was more mental than physical,” said Chhetri who is the second-best scorer in international matches from among active players with 72 goals.
Then India head coach Bob Houghton called Chhetri to join the national team for the 2011 Asian Cup in Doha. He came back and did not return to Wizards.
Before Wizards, Chhetri signed a deal with English side Queens Park Rangers in 2009 but the Football Association did not allow him the work permit as India’s ranking was low.
Asked what legacy he will leave behind once he retires, Chhetri said: “If anyone remembers me, it’s about my hard work. When it is time for me to go and somebody else comes, I hope he comes because he is better than me, not because I did not work hard.”
Chhetri also said he was surprised when he was offered a three-year contract by Kolkata giant Mohun Bagan in 2002, his first professional deal, that too by the biggest team in the country.
“After the 12th class exam results, I got a call from Mohun Bagan. They saw me at Durand Cup when I was playing for City Club of Delhi. I thought they might want me for SAIL Academy. Never ever I thought Mohun Bagan is calling me for Mohun Bagan!”
“I joined the team and trained. They did not tell me they were taking trial of me. After one week they told me ‘call your father’ I was 17 and I can’t sign a contract and there was no agents then. My father came but still I had no clue.
“Next day, they called me with my father and said ‘here is your three-year contract’.”