By John Marshall
The Associated Press
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — The news came in a single line in the list of the day’s sports transactions:
KANSAS CITY WIZARDS — Added F Sunil Chhetri to the 24-man roster.
The move barely registered with American sports fans. It was probably somewhat exciting to a small portion of the most knowledgeable soccer followers. Although it is nowhere near David Beckham, it is still kind of cool.
Back in India, however, Chhetri’s signing was monumental. Front-page news, can-you-believe-it, call-your-friends big.
One of the biggest stars in the world’s second-most populated country — 1.1 billion people and counting — became the first player from his country to sign with Major League Soccer.
“He’s a rock star, absolutely,” said Raghu Sardhr, an Indian attending the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where Chhetri played his first game for the Wizards. “The people back in India love him. It was really, really big news.”
Sunil Chhetri (pronounced Soo-neel CHeh-tree) was a little more than a name on a list when he first popped up on Kansas City’s radar.
The Wizards, like most MLS teams, receive dozens of letters, video links, and DVDs each month from players seeking a chance to play professional soccer. The Kansas City staff feels guilty about not giving everyone a chance, so they take a look.
Chhetri immediately caught their eye, even in the limited video clips they were able to obtain. The representatives from the Indian team were told by the Wizards to get him to the United States so that he can have a shot.
After Chhetri arrived in Arizona for a training camp with the Wizards, it was clear that he could play.
Blurry-fast feet. Nose for the goal. Connected with the other players on the attack almost instantly. Good instincts. Able to adapt to the team’s style of play without thinking about it. Quick to get the ball ahead instead of holding it too long. Hits well with both feet as he uses his entire body to strike it. Pretty good in the air at 5-foot-7. Chhetri had a burning intensity to go with his talent.
“We learned that he’s extremely competitive, has a desire to be successful and when you have that, you can get a lot out of a guy,” Wizards coach Peter Vermes said. “If someone has the talent and they don’t have the fire in the belly, so to speak, every day you’re struggling to get those guys going. This guy just gets it.”
What the Wizards didn’t realize was just how big he was back in India.
Chhetri has been a regular on the Indian national team since 2004, scoring 16 goals in 35 appearances. His most famous moment came in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup final against Tajikistan, where he scored three goals to send India to the Asian Cup for the first time since 1984.
The reaction in India to Chhetri’s move to the United States has been similar to what happened in Japan nine years ago when Ichiro Suzuki switched to Major League Baseball, just without the round-the-clock TV coverage — at least not yet.
The Wizards held the news conference for his signing at 9:30 p.m. local time so it could be broadcast in India. The team has doubled its Facebook friends to 12,000 since he joined the team, many of them posting photos of their favorite star, some saying his signing will bring more fans to MLS than Beckham ever did.
Rob Johnson, Kansas City’s vice president of communications, has been inundated with calls from media members in India, often at 3 or 4 a.m. because of the time difference.
“It’s really blown us away, not only the amount of the interest but the depth of the interest,” said Greg Cotton, chief operating officer of the Wizards’ parent company, OnGoal. “But he is the face of Indian soccer.
A lot of the Indian press has told us that they believe Sunil is going to be the one who’s going to bring Indian soccer to the rest of the world. That’s pretty exciting when you hear stuff like that.”
Back in India, dozens of stories have been written about Chhetri’s monumental move, treating every development — a goal during training was front-page news — as if it were a lunar landing. Chhetri has done close to 150 interviews since agreeing to terms with the Wizards on March 25. Another live feed to India is expected this week.
The Times of India, a newspaper with more than 10 million readers, printed the Wizards’ news release verbatim when it was announced that Chhetri would start Tuesday night’s game against Colorado in the U.S. Open Cup.
“We’ve called him the Michael Jordan of India, but I don’t think we still really appreciate how big he is,” Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad said. “It’s a country of 1 billion and everybody knows his name. That alone puts him at a different stratosphere.”
Just don’t expect Chhetri to feel the pressure.
Soccer doesn’t have nearly the fervent following in India as cricket does, but it’s still much bigger there than in the United States. An estimated 80 million viewers tune in to watch English Premier League games on TV and Indian national team members are like national heroes.
Chhetri accepts the expectations of a nation, he just won’t let them weigh him down. He worked too hard to get this opportunity and he still has so much he wants to do.
“I haven’t given anyone my telephone number, I’ve tried to keep to myself because all of this is like added pressure,” Chhetri said. “I try not to think about these things. The only thing I was thinking about when I got here was to give my best and make the most of this opportunity.”
Sardhr and the rest of India’s soccer fans are counting on it.
He and four other Indian students watched Tuesday’s game from the stands, then worked their way behind a fence to a sidewalk leading to the Wizards locker room. After 10 minutes of furtive, excited glances toward the door, they saw Chhetri walk out.
Their eyes lit up and so did his when he looked up to find a group of his countrymen waiting. They chatted for a few minutes and snapped a photo together before Chhetri walked off toward the team bus, leaving the students with huge grins and an amazing story to tell.
“We’d love to see more Indians come here and I think this will open the door,” Sardhr said. “He’s one of the best if not the best in India, so they’re excited.”
That, as the Wizards found out, is a huge understatement. ♦