By Shraishth Jain
AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: From captain to teammate to rival, and now the coach -- Indian National Team Assistant Coach Shanmugam Venkatesh has played a multitude of roles in Sunil Chhetri’s professional career. In fact, it was under Venkatesh’s captaincy that Chhetri had begun his International journey for India. On the day when the Indian National team captain celebrates his 35thbirthday, Venkatesh took a trip down memory lane to recollect Sunil’s early days, shares some secrets about SC11, dissect him as a player, and much more. EXCERPTS from our Birthday Special on Sunil Chhetri:
You were the National team captain when Sunil made his debut against Pakistan in 2005. What are your memories from the match?
I remember we were missing a number of regular players for the series, and it paved the way for a talented Sunil Chhetri to get picked. We were playing in Pakistan, and that was an added pressure on everyone. I remember Sunil being tremendous on his debut. He even scored, and it was an indicator for things to come.
What do you mean by ‘indicator'?
Sunil was mentally very strong right from the start. The turning point for him, I feel, came for him when he moved to JCT. His performances sent across the message that he was ready for the National Team. There was intense competition for places in the Indian side. But he proved his worth and became a regular.
How was he during his early days?
As a captain and teammate I travelled with him for 4-5 years. The younger faces in the team -- the likes of him, and Steven Dias were extremely naughty characters in the dressing room. He was such a chirpy guy. We used to have a lot of fun. But he was utmost serious when it came to his work.
At the same time, we used to respect him and the other junior players as well. As a senior player, it is very important to guide and respect the youngsters as it motivates them to improve their performance, and confidence.
How much has Sunil changed over the years?
In the last four years as the National Team Assistant coach, I have seen an entirely different face of Sunil. When we played together, the routines were different. We are now more comfortable discussing things. He has great knowledge of the game, and I have always respected his opinions and suggestions.
After becoming the coach, I have noticed his seriousness, and concentration levels. For a player, it's very easy to lose concentration in the middle of a camp. But I have never seen this happen even once with Sunil.
From a debutant in 2005 to the highest capped player for India ever – How have you seen Sunil evolve over the years – both on and off the pitch?
Sunil is still at the top of his game, he is still scoring goals. He treats every training session as the same, and gives his all. Off the pitch, I can see, he is very disciplined. It is not very easy to do that after reaching a level, as sometimes one can get casual but it has never happened to him.
He has maintained himself very well and he is careful at every step – right from eating the right things, to taking adequate rest, to taking care of his equipment. It is the little things that matter, and other players also follow him. He keeps himself updated with the latest happenings, and makes the most of them.
Another important thing is that behind all his successes, he has made a lot of sacrifices as well. From the outside, everything seems easy but very few know the sacrifices he makes every day. It only gets harder as you become a senior. But he knows how to deal with things, and proves himself day in day out on the field. He is a role model to many and I hope he continues to do his best and wish him best for the future.
What was Sunil’s quality which has always stood out for you?
As a player, I tried to read the game situation, and the opponent in the first 10 minutes or so. Every opponent is different, and offers a different threat. Sunil has had this quality right from the very start. He has been adept at making the most of his strengths.
You are yourself a winner of the AIFF Player of the Year award. How important is the Award for you, and how significant is it for Sunil to win it six times now?
It is one of the most prestigious awards you can win as a player. I won it during the early stages of my career. I know how valuable it is. It is not easy to win it as you have to be consistent throughout the entire year -- both for your club, and National Team.
Sunil deserves the award, and him winning it is a big message for the junior players. He has won it six times now and it really is a testament to the consistency he has shown over the years.
You have played with legendary forwards such as IM Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil over the course of your career. How has your experience been with each of them?
I enjoyed playing with all three of them.
Vijayan was a senior, and a unique kind of player. With him, we didn't have to even talk to communicate on the pitch. On the other hand, Bhaichung was a leader from the start. I played with him for 9-10 years and he was extremely aggressive. He used to be out target man in the penalty box. Sunil played under my captainship, and we could see from the start that he had the potential to be a special player. It's hard to compare these players as each one of them has their own qualities that made them stand out. There were other strikers during this period as well who I respect deeply. But these three certainly were different from the lot.