Was the lack of support for football an issue that was bothering you for a while? What led you to make that appeal to your fans through a video?
I didn’t think too much before posting the video. I won’t say that football isn’t well-received in the country. There are many places like Chennai, Kerala, Bengaluru, and the Northeast, where we get brilliant support. It’s just that we were playing Chinese Taipei in our first game in Mumbai, and the city generally has a great crowd and atmosphere. The youngsters in the team played really well, but only around 1,500 people showed up to watch that game! I wasn’t angry, but that made me really sad. Ideally on social media, every caption or post of mine is monitored and timed because even if you miss a comma, there are people who will say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t know English.’ My team cleans up the content for me, but not this one. There was no script behind it and it wasn’t a planned move. I didn’t even ask my PR team or media manager before posting the video. If I would have given them time to think, they wouldn’t have allowed it. Now, they are happy about it (laughs!).
Your message was heartfelt and struck a chord with fans who may have written off the national side…
Well, a lot of sectors in India do enjoy great football support, but I was disappointed that day especially for the young kids in the team who didn’t get the support they deserved. When we are playing for the country, there has to be that motivation. Around 300 fans called the ‘Blue Pilgrims’ travel from across the country to watch us and most of them are college students who don’t even have that kind of money. If they can do it, why not the rest? An audience builds an invisible pressure on everyone involved in a good way — be it the players, coach, federation or the government. The crowd keeps us on our toes. Let’s have an opinion, doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. It improves things.
Some are of the opinion that a player of your stature shouldn’t have pleaded to people like that…
I appreciate the concern of those who thought like that, but I have no shame in doing what I did. It was a normal tweet. Yes, I made a request to people. The moment you use the word plead, it changes perspective. I didn’t ‘ask’ people to come. I said please come, if you can. I did read some comments that said I shouldn’t have done this or that, but there was no hidden agenda or ego. I didn’t think that I was pleading. If I had thought that way, I wouldn’t have made the video. I just said what I felt and it was a normal message.
Since the video came prior to your 100th appearance, many feared and anticipated a retirement announcement…
Till the time I can contribute to the team and enjoy playing, I will play for this country. Two years, six years, eight years, 10 years… who knows?
Football World Cup 2018 is just round the corner and the one question that has continued to plague us for decades is when India will participate in it.
I don’t have an answer to that as that target is way too far at the moment. As a captain of the team, the target in my head today is how India can make it to the top 10 of Asia. If there’s any chance for India to make it to the World Cup (WC), you need to rub shoulders with the top five of Asia as they generally end up playing the WC. For that, they should want to play you in the first place. When was the last time we played Japan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, South Korea? These are the Asian teams that will play the WC this year. It’s important to play against these sides so you have a reference. Unless you don’t make it to top 10 of Asia, why would they? These things are miles ahead and you need time and patience for it. I understand when people say, ‘We want to support our country in the WC, not Argentina.’ I feel sad and I know it’s more of an emotional cry than a technical one, but a lot of things need to change for that.
Who are you rooting for this WC?
I don’t have any favourites, but I am rooting for Spain because I like the way they play.
What exactly needs to change for the sport to grow in the country?
Every kid, who is good at a sport needs to be identified as early as possible. If we can give coaching, nutrition, education and proper rest to these kids, half of our job is done. Once we achieve this, then we can complain about us not winning enough medals. I often hear people saying, ‘We are a country of one billion people and still we don’t win any medals.’ But when you can’t tap even 10 per cent of the population, how can you make this statement?
Many Bollywood stars are involved with football of late. Do you think Bollywood helps widen the reach of the game?
I like John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan. I know for a fact that they genuinely like football. In terms of reach, their involvement helps as they understand football and a lot of people follow them so when they speak, it matters. But our problem is different. Bollywood can only help spread the word. It can’t come play football for us or coach us or change the management.
You married your longtime girlfriend Sonam Bhattacharya last December. How is married life treating you?
When you marry your friend, nothing really changes. We dated for 12 years before we tied the knot. It helps that she hails from a footballing family and understands my needs, patience and temperament. We love watching football and TV shows together. We also like to go out for dinner, but it’s difficult for us to step out in Bengaluru of late, since people have started recognising me more. I am very fond of Virat Kohli. Luckily, I am still not in his league as he gets mobbed wherever he goes (laughs). What makes it worse is that the poor guy is married to someone who is equally famous. He cannot step out casually and I don’t want that. I am okay with people just waving at me at malls etc., but it’s slowly changing. I don’t go out too much anymore and my wife is not very happy about it.
Does it irk you when your wife appreciates other players?
Not at all. My wife is a big Ronaldo fan and had his poster in her room before our marriage, which is still there. She thinks that Udanta (Singh) is faster than me, which is true. I love the fact that she not only loves football, but also understands it. When she tells me that some player is better than me, I have no problem because I know she has put her brains behind that thought and means well.
Ronaldo or Messi, who is the better player?
Messi is my favourite, but I feel he’s God-gifted. You can’t teach people what Messi does. On the other hand, Ronaldo is an example of what hard work can help you achieve. His dedication to fitness is outstanding. It’s something we all should learn from him. Small sacrifices and discipline make a whole lot of difference. He is doing that at the highest level and that’s why he is where he is.
Virat Kohli, Sunil Chhetri urge fans to watch and cheer Indian football team