'I never knew I could make a profession out of football'
He is only the third Indian footballer to ply his trade outside the country; he took to football only to get entry into a good college, and never thought of earning a livelihood from the game.
"I never knew I could make a profession out of football. I never thought I could make a career out of it. The main motive for me was to get a certificate that can get me into a good university. That was my whole motive. That I could get decent marks in my exams and have the national certificate to get into some good colleges," said Sunil Chhetri, who became the first Indian to join a Major League Soccer (MLS) side when he signed for Kansas City Wizards last month.
"When I played a youth tournament, I was 16. I came back and Mohun Bagan, one of the major clubs in our country, saw me and signed me. I never knew how much you can earn and what kind of career you can have from soccer. Once I joined Mohun Bagan, I never looked back," he told the official MLS website.
Image: Sunil Chhetri in Kansas City Wizards colours
'India has the talent, but lacks infrastructure'
Chhetri, only the third Indian player after Mohammad Salim and Baichung Bhutia to play professional football outside the country, is yet to play in MLS, but made his KC Wizards debut in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup against the Colorado Rapids.
He expressed hope that his joining KC Wizards would pave the way for other Indians to play abroad.
"I think if not MLS and if not Europe, there are a lot of places that players can go and perform. They can still go to Australia, a place like Qatar or Japan, where they have great facilities.
"For football to prosper, the infrastructure is not there (in India). They can at least see how far they can go and where they stand with proper facilities. I hope me coming to MLS is going to pave way for a lot of players to go abroad.
"There is a lot of talent in our country. But the right nourishment at the right age is what we lack in our country. The kind of infrastructure, I can really say it's poor. I don't think there is any scarcity of talent, but we lack the infrastructure and facilities that players need to develop."
Image: Kansas City Wizards players pose for a team photo in Kansas City
'Game is much faster in MLS than I-League'
Talking about his earlier trials at Coventry City and Queens Park Rangers, both English Championship sides, Chhetri said, "I was called by Coventry in January 2007, but my club East Bengal didn't release me. They released me on 28th, and 31st was the transfer deadline in England. I was there for three days but things didn't work out.
"Then I had something with QPR. Everything was done. We signed the deal. But the FA didn't allow me because my country didn't qualify in the first 70 of the FIFA rankings. In the Championship in England, there is a rule that your country has to be 70 or better in the rankings," said the Delhi lad.
Asked about differences between MLS and I-League, Chhetri said, "There is more pace here (in MLS). The speed of the game is much faster than what we have in our country. It's much more physical than what we have. I think those two departments are the things that are very different from our country and MLS."
Image: Chhetri gets instructions from Kansas City Wizards manager Peter Vernes
'Healthy atmosphere to learn in MLS'
Football runs in Chhetri's blood, as both his parents played the game, his mother a Nepali international.
"My mother and father were both natural soccer players. I didn't have to work hard (to have the knowledge of football). I think I already had that in me. My mother was playing for Nepal in her very early years, but then she got married and she had to quit. My mother and her twin sister used to play for Nepal," he said.
Chhetri said adapting to the American climate was a problem for him when he landed in the United States but he has adjusted now.
"I think initially when I came it was difficult because of the 12-hour gap and the kind of climate, because it was quite cold when I came here. Now it's quite a bit warmer," he said.
"The only thing for me now is to settle down, do my best in the training and try to improve. I need to catch up on some things. I need to understand players, which is very important, and how exactly they play and their mentality. It's going to take time.
"My teammates have been very kind to me. The coaches have all been very kind, and I think there is a healthy atmosphere to learn. Whatever happens in the future, I am just going to enjoy my time here."
Image: Chhetri celebrates with Baichung Bhutia after scoring against Tajikistan during their AFC Challenge Cup 2008