FROM THE INDIAN STREETS TO THE PORTUGUESE FLOODLIGHTS: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH S.C. ALBA’S SUNAI CHABBRA
Before diving into the Sunai Chabbra story, it is important for us to caveat the chat with the revelation that this was the second time we had interviewed the phenomenon in three days after a godforsaken audio recording application that will remain unnamed, singlehandedly rained over our metaphorical parade upon first attempt. While this is far from the controversial media exclusive that surrounds your stereotypical modern footballer, it reveals that Sunai is everything a host of his contemporaries could only aspire to be- humble, unassuming and compassionate.
He would have been well-placed to be fuming after discovering that the interview, much like his time and energy had gone down the drain. Far from it; the young buck laughed it off and while he was at it, offered to even write the answers to the questions we had asked and send them across.
As taken aback as we were by Sunai’s gracious gesture, a chinwag with the silky S.C Alba man was the intention and much like for many of football’s greatest, a second chance came calling for us.
When you peruse through this interview, More Than A Game hopes you remember the name-Sunai Chabbra; not just because he’s making waves in Portugal’s Serie C with the weight of his country’s expectations on his 18-year old shoulders, but for the man himself.
Let’s go back to where it all started. What made you fall in love with football?
When I was around 10 or 11 years old, I used to play cricket a lot and even all of my friends near my house played it. At that time, cricket was at its peak.
Then I saw some older guys playing football in the park and one day I asked them if I could play as well. They said things like “you’re way too small”, “you’ll get hurt”, “you don’t know how to play football”. But they gave me the ball for a minute and said that they’ll let me play if I was any good.
They asked me to take a shot and I couldn’t even shoot the ball. I didn’t know how to play and so I used to watch them play and do skills. I realized that this game is crazy and I needed to learn this.
At that time, I didn’t even have a football so I asked my dad to bring one. I’d go home, watch videos on YouTube, practice, try things the older guys used to do in the games like stepovers and as I kept doing that, I fell in love with football.
Growing up, which players made you think to yourself, “I want to do that someday”?
Cristiano Ronaldo- his never give-up attitude, the fact that he’s a very skillful player and the best in the world. The best part about him is that he motivates his teammates. Even if they’re 2-0 down, he’ll say “come on, we’ll win for sure”. If you see Ronaldo, he’ll shout and even if his team has 5 minutes, he would say something like “that’s a lot to win a game”.
Have you seen the game against Wolfsburg? They were 2-0 down in the 1st leg and he scored a hattrick in the 2nd leg. He totally changed the game and that’s the thing I love about him.
Apart from Ronaldo, I also looked at Wayne Rooney at Manchester United as a kid.
For someone who hasn’t watched you in action, what kind of a player would you describe yourself as?
Being an attacking midfielder, I am the main man. I carry the game forward, move the ball from one side to another and take the ball from defence to attack; that’s my job. I love to go for goal, I’m that kind of a player and I also love to score goals. Whenever I have a chance, I have to score a goal or else, I need to create one for my teammates, give an assist or give a through ball to my striker.
Defensively, I’m sound but I have defensive-midfielders by my side. I go forward, but not too forward; I receive the ball and whenever I have the chance to move forward is when I know I have to be on the go.
I look up to players like Toni Kroos and Kevin De Bruyne.
In a country where education is placed above everything else, your journey in trying to become a sportsman sets you apart from the rest. Whether it’s the sacrifices or the risks that come with a career in football, did you ever want to take a step back and take the route your peers were headed towards?
In Class XI, I had this tournament called Khelo India (Youth Games) and the dates were from 8th February to the 20th; my final exams were on the exact same dates. When you get selected, you have to go for the national camp so I went for that in November so I just couldn’t study. In December, I passed the fitness test and every other test in the camp. I can remember us having practices daily. Every single day.
In January, I was again busy because we had practices and we started playing friendly matches against other teams and clubs. And after that, on 1st February, they told us that the team had to move to a hotel and we couldn’t just go home. We had to stay with the team for 20 days.
I asked my mom if I can go and she said, “See, you’ve got your exams at the same time and I don’t think you should go for football. I totally support you, but your exams are equally important.” And when I talked to my Physical Education teacher, he said the opposite by saying, “you go, I’ll take care of your exams. Just give the re-tests when you’re back. I’ll talk to your principal; you just go and play at the tournament.”
At the start, I thought that I should just give the exams because even my family’s saying that if I don’t, I’ll waste one year if the school don’t let me give them again. And the principal did say no and I had to repeat Class 11th.
At that moment, I knew I had messed 11th grade up. I was scared, but I ended up picking football.
Looking back, do you think you made the right decision?
It is because of all of this that I went to Portugal. I got selected in the trials for the Pro Direct academy at Khelo India. The scouting partner had come and they scouted me. After missing my exams and all the drama, I got selected and because of all the sacrifices I had made, I went to Portugal. It was a 50-50 case because I had sacrificed and I had got something in return for it also.
After this, my mom said that I should go ahead and that I can do my studies there. Somewhere, I knew this tournament would definitely help me, with the certificate and even with my colleges. Even now, on sports quota, I can get any college. I had that in my mind always.
I remember this tournament being shown live on Star Sports and that it’s a big one. I knew I had to be there and play.
After getting selected by the Pro Direct Academy to go to Portugal, was this when you realized you could turn your dreams into reality?
I wasn’t sure, but yes, somewhere in the back of my mind, I felt I was getting closer to my dream and I should carry forward with it as a career and focus on it. I decided that I will have a backup plan and do my studies also. At first, the academy in Portugal didn’t have a core studies program, but because of me and this other guy, we made it a point that if they put us in a school, we’d come regularly and also balance that with football.
They fund my studies as they have partnerships and contacts with other schools so I am focusing on both those things at the moment.
Making the huge step up from the Indian football circuit to competing against top Portuguese talents, how drastic was the change on the pitch?
On the pitch, I have two main points. The first was communicating with my teammates because they only spoke in Portuguese. Only one or two could speak a little bit of English. If you can’t communicate with the players or the coach, it becomes very difficult to perform, to understand the drills and also how they want you to play.
At first, I had to learn Portugese. Pro Direct had their own teacher and we had class everyday, before or after training. For the first 3 or 4 months, I knew nothing but after a certain amount of time, I learned a few words and then I could communicate with my teammates, understand the drills and it became a little bit easier.
The second point is understanding the way they play. That was very challenging for me because the game was totally different from India. For me, it was a complete 360-degree change. Not even a single thing made me think that this is the same as how we play in India.
In India, our game is very slow. You take 3 to 4 touches and even the thinking process is slow. When I went to Portugal, it’s like “bam, bam! The man is right in my face.” At the start, it felt impossible for me. You know when you get that feeling that I can’t compete against these guys because they’re just too good. But I knew that I had to work on myself and the I started playing fast, taking one touch or two, maximum.
I changed my game according to their style and in the next 4 to 5 months, I felt I was doing good and soon after, I signed for the club (S.C. Alba).
Did these struggles follow you off the pitch as well?
Off the pitch, you have to do everything on your own. No family or anything. If you know you don’t have your mother by your side, it’s very difficult.
The things we’re used to, we get everything. In Portugal, giving your clothes for laundry, going downstairs and eating yourself, washing your dishes after eating, there is always a set schedule. I wasn’t used to this schedule- we used to wake up from between 7 till 8, come back by 5, go for club training by 5:45 till 10 also sometimes, pack my bags, unpack my kit and get ready for school the next day.
It was very difficult at first and I didn’t even have a minute to catch my breath.
You went through of all of that which is why you’re not just a better footballer, but also a better person. When you got some experience at the Pro Direct Academy and started playing professional football for S.C. Alba in the Serie C, how would you say you have improved as a player?
I’ve gained a lot of confidence. When I was in India, I would actually say I was underconfident because when I used to get under pressure, I used to panic. I just wasn’t used to pressure then.
I improve my technique, day and night and I worked on everything. Now, when I see myself, I know that if you put three players on me, I’ll easily escape them. I tend to thrive in pressure and now I just feel very relaxed and composed when I’m playing.
When you look at players like Kylian Mbappé and Jadon Sancho, youngsters that came up from youth academies to now becoming household names, does it instill this belief in you that if you keep striving, there’s no limit to where a young talent such as yourself can reach?
Looking at Mbappé and Sancho, I also feel that when you’re 18 or 19 years old, you can totally become a professional footballer. You do need luck; I really believe in luck. Secondly, you need great opportunities. They say create your own opportunities and somewhere down the line, you can reach a respectable level but that depends on your luck and the chances you get.
I know that if I was born in Europe or even America, I would’ve been a much better player and been at a great level at 16 or 17. This is because even when I was a child, we didn’t have good academies, facilities or anything that time. India is improving, though and I did start playing in aa professional league quite late. But if you look at Mbappé and Sancho, they started playing for good youth teams from very early which is why they could excel.
I know that if I can get good opportunities and I can improve a lot, I can totally reach that level.
When you see yourself improving and have reached such a high level, does the element of flying the Indian flag at the international level drive you to succeed?
If I get to the highest level, I hope so (chuckles). I’ll be proud to say I’m an Indian. I haven’t seen an Indian go to the European leagues, whether it’s the La Liga, Premier League or even Serie A. I know I’ll always keep an Indian flag with me and if I play at the stage, I’ll tell the whole world I’m an Indian.
So, when you’re not on the pitch, how do you take a breather?
I watch football 24×7, whether its matches, videos or anything else. If we’re talking apart from football, I go out with my friends for a movie, dinner with my family or lie down and be on my phone, using Instagram. I like to calm my mind down. It’s very important to give rest to your mind. You shouldn’t use your phone then, watch TV or even think about anything.
Whenever I get free time, I enjoy listening to music and resting. When you’re playing games, every second day, you get very tired and use a lot of your brain. So, I like to chit-chat with my friends and gossip around as well as talk to girls (laughs).
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring young footballers?
I would tell them to never lose hope. If things aren’t going well, if you work on them, they’ll go well for sure. At one point, there was a time when I thought, “I can’t play here (Portugal).” But I worked on it and now if you see me, you’ll think that I play so well and that I’m such a composed player. But behind the scenes, you don’t know what all I went through or the work hard behind it.
So, I’ll give them my example and say that work hard, day and night and don’t waste your time. Fight for your dreams. Don’t just keep dreaming, work for it.