In a near two-decade stint in Indian football, Sunil Chhetri has seen just about everything. But even for someone as experienced as the Bengaluru FC captain, it will be an unknown territory heading into the new season. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the Indian Super League into a bubble, one that will last five months, and there are many hurdles along the way. However, Chhetri, ever the quintessential optimist as evidenced by his career, is looking at it as glass half full.
“(Challenges are) many. Not being able to play at Kanteerava stadium… Our fans travelled for away games, so not having them will be a big miss,” said Chhetri. “Staying in a bubble is not easy, but needed. After experiencing the bubble for a couple of weeks, there were some murmurs in the dressing room but I told them it’s a small price to pay. When there are so many people struggling to do fundamental things, it’s a huge benefit that we get to do what we love. I know it will be more difficult as time passes on and if the Indian boys are listening from other teams also, please be sensible and stay resilient.”
Bengaluru FC started their pre-season early in October in Ballari before shifting their base to Goa towards month-end. After the mandatory quarantine period, the team is once again back on the field doing double sessions to make up for the lost time. There are three foreign players who are yet to get on the field and, as such, the preparations have been far from ideal. A reality shared by all teams in the ISL.
“It would have been conducive if we had a couple of more weeks (to train). We are working hard, first of all, to avoid injuries because in about 16 days we will start our season and we haven’t had a full training session with everyone,” remarked Chhetri.
Having failed to win any silverware for the first time in their brief but trophy-laden history, the club will be all the more motivated. While Chhetri refused to look too far into the future, he admitted the AFC Champions League slot – given to the winner of the league phase – is a big motivation.
In terms of the squad, BFC have done well to retain key players and strengthen areas of concern. Defenders Ajith Kumar, Pratik Chaudhari, and Fran Gonzalez are key additions as are Cleiton Silva and Kristian Opseth at the other end. Also, the massive 32-man squad will be key this season.
“(Retaining the squad) is an advantage. We have been doing well for the last 3-4 years. We have the same players and coach. Injuries are a concern, we also have a virus to deal with. So the onus is on us to stay fit and available for selection. The squad will be more important than ever,” remarked Chhetri.
The captain is also pleased with how the youngsters have come back after the long break. “I was happily surprised when I saw them in testing. Ashique Kuruniyan and Leon Augustine have been in excellent physical form. Suresh (Singh Wangjam) and Udanta (Singh) look sharp, the B team boys look hungry,” he signed off.