Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri emphasised the pivotal role played by the Indian Super League (ISL) in kindling a fervour for domestic football in India. Since joining the ISL in 2015, Chhetri, who initially represented Mumbai City FC and later Bengaluru FC, has become the highest-scoring Indian player in the league's history, boasting over 130 appearances across nine seasons.

Addressing the importance of the league in spearheading the development of Indian football, Bengaluru FC captain Chhetri feels that ISL has spread football within the country and increased the popularity of Indian football. 

“I think a lot of things went well in the last 10 years for us, but the biggest, is probably the ISL. What it did was, it got the game to every nook and corner of the country. So when you give a kid that hope (that he can play there), it is different, and that is the biggest thing that ISL has given. Interest, hope and visibility throughout the country,” Chhetri said in an interview with CurlyTales. 

The ISL has been instrumental in discovering emerging talents like Sandesh Jhingan, Sahal Abdul Samad, Lalengmawia Ralte, and Naorem Roshan Singh. Chhetri advocates for nurturing young talents from grassroots levels and emphasised the need for early identification and providing the right resources for their development.

“The early we can identify the talent, him or her, and give them the right infrastructure, the right schooling, the right education to be a better player, I think we are good,” he shared.

Despite being the face of the ISL among Indian players and a highly popular figure in the country, Chhetri acknowledges that the league's popularity is still distant from European counterparts. He believes it's the responsibility of Indian footballers to shift the audience from foreign leagues to Indian football.

“You only have two hours to spend on the TV, you want to watch the IPL because it's the best league, and the best players in the world play here. Same way, if you have two hours to watch football it is not very common for everyone to neglect the Premier League, or the Bundesliga, or the Champions League, where they can watch Messi and Ronaldo, and watch domestic football, and I don’t blame them. Our work as footballers, in India, is to get those fans slowly, this side (towards Indian football),” he said.

He added, “Football as a sport is the most popular sport in any country, it’s the best sport, you love it, you enjoy watching it, but to bring our fans into domestic football is the task and it will happen slowly. It has changed drastically in the last 10 years, it’ll take time, it’ll happen.”

Chhetri, at 39, remains a crucial player for both club and country, boasting an impressive record with two I-League titles, two Federation Cup titles, one Durand Cup, and an ISL Cup during his tenure with Bengaluru FC. Despite his achievements, he is mindful of the ephemeral nature of his football career. 

“If you want to be a sports person you have got to be highly intelligent, and highly healthy. There’s no two ways about it. ‘This dream will end soon’ is something that I tell myself everyday. It’s been five(-six) years, I’ve come here (back to Bengaluru FC) and I know it, I understand it, and it makes me really sad. That’s why it motivates me,” he expressed. 

Reflecting on the privilege of being a player, Chhetri also acknowledged the irreplaceable thrill of pre-game adrenaline.

“The whole privilege of being a player, the adrenaline before a game that you get, you can’t replicate it. No matter who I become, how much money I’ve got, how much fame I’ve got, I will never get the butterflies in my stomach before a 90-minute game and that is something that nothing can buy for you,” he said. 

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