Sunil Chhetri: Mohun Bagan-East Bengal rivalry is fierce and top notch
Image Courtesy: © BFC
Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri has expressed his admiration and awe for the rivalry between the Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. The 31-year-old also spoke about the club's run in the AFC Cup, the incredible Bengaluru FC fans, and the youngsters coming through the ranks at BFC.
Bengaluru FC reclaimed the I-League crown this season, beating 2014/15 champions Mohun Bagan to the title by two points. It was a sweet revenge of that Bello Razaq goal, which won Bagan the title in the dying minutes of the 2014-15 season. Although, Chhetri has denied any intention of taking revenge on their part.
"We as a team are really happy. It was a very sad day last year when we lost the league to Mohun Bagan on the final day. I would not say that we played the whole league thinking of revenge in our minds," Chhetri told Firstpost in an exclusive interview at the sidelines of a Puma Social Club event.
Chhetri, who has played for both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, also spoke about the intense rivalry shared between these two clubs and their fans. He said, "As players we can see it (the rivalry between Bagan and Bengaluru fans). I think it’s healthy, " says Chhetri. "Sometimes it’s worse, but it’s alright, that’s football. Especially because the two clubs have been fighting for the league in last two years, also among these two clubs the Federation Cup has been won or lost. I can totally understand why it’s happening and it’s nice. I've been a part of Mohun Bagan-East Bengal rivalry as well, I've played for both the clubs and I know it is fierce and its top notch. And it’s good to see that a club from Bengaluru has got the same thing, if not the same, but some flavor to it”.
One of the best things that Bengaluru FC have contributed so far to Indian football since their inception has been their fervid fans. Chhetri also shared one of his memories, when he met a traveling supporter, who flew all the way from Bengaluru to Shillong to watch a game.
Apart from lifting the I-League title, Bengaluru FC have also managed an impressive run of performances in the AFC Cup, which has seen them book a quarterfinal place in the AFC Cup. Chhetri knows that his club is just a step away from making history, but has refrained from looking too far into the future.
"The first year we played in the AFC Cup as virtue of being I-League champions and did quite well to qualify from our group. This year, as we are a club who always want to keep improving in all departments, we really wanted to do better than we did last year. To reach the quarter-finals this year, that too away from home against Kitchee, gives us a lot of happiness and satisfaction.
"It was a very tough game and before the match, the gaffer said that there are not many teams that come to Kitchee and attack them. Our philosophy and plan was to go and play attack-minded. We put both our young strikers Udanta Singh and Daniel Lalhlimpuia right up front and we wanted them not to play from the back, which really paid dividends. I think it's not about the goals (I scored), the whole team played really well and we defended well as a team, and attacking-wise created a lot of chances. It would be fair to say if we hadn't missed all the chances it would've been a different scoreline. I think it was a very satisfying game," Chhetri said of that crucial encounter in Mong Kok Stadium, Hong Kong.
"The real reason why we have reached here is because we have taken one game at a time and that’s the thing we want to continue doing. We now have quarter-finals to play home and away and we’re just thinking about that game. We do know that only East Bengal and Dempo have played the semi-finals, but right now semi-finals are too far because in AFC every game is very important and difficult. So we just want to think about the next game, whenever we come to know which team we’re going to play next, we’re going to think about that game, and hopefully we pass that hurdle and then think about the next one. If we reach semis or finals, that’ll be a great achievement for us as club and as a country," Chhetri added.
The Indian national team skipper has also praised Bengaluru youngsters Malsawmzuala and Daniel Lalhlimpuia. He said, "To be honest, when we first saw them in training we were really impressed and we thought they had great talent. But I didn't think they would start the number of games they did. It is not easy for a youngster to come to a team like Bengaluru FC, which is a champion team, and start matches. In that department, I think Malsawmzuala especially did really well. Out of those three, Zuala started the most number of matches. To play as a defensive midfielder in a team like ours is not an easy task and he showed a lot of character.
"Daniel, on the other hand,, was a little bit unlucky because at the start he got a knee injury and he was out for one and a half months. He came back well, and I think he stepped up very quickly. The one game I remember is the Mumbai FC game where we won 1-0 and he scored the winner and also against Kitchee in the AFC Cup, where he scored the winner. Nishu, on the other hand, got fewer chances, which is understandable because Reno Anto plays in that position. But I think all three of them have a great future if they keep their heads on their shoulders they are going to play many more games for us and the national team."
Speaking about his plans for the future, Chhetri said that he is keeping things simple at the moment.
"I’m really happy (with this season). The good thing is I don’t have any long-term targets, never had before also. I just think about the next game. it helps me to be focused. The moment I think about six to eight months ahead, I’ll lose track. That’s how I've planned my career so far and that’s how it’s going to be," he said.