Let me begin the interview by enquiring about your injury. How are you now?
I am much better now. There were two games I had to play: one AFC game and then one for the national team. Once these games were over, I knew I would get a long break. Thankfully nothing happened in those games. I had a good vacation. Last week, I was with my family in Hongkong and Macau.
How are you coping with increasing age?
I just follow my normal routine. I’m doing exactly the same I used to do when I was 20. There is no issue at all. The only difference is that I have become smarter.
From a sublime finisher to a great provider, what has been the reason for this change?
It’s just the position. I could play number 9 throughout my life. Slowly, I started playing number 10. So, I play behind the striker now both at the club and the international level. I’ve more space to come back and build up the play. It is not something that I’ve done deliberately, it is something that the coaches wanted me to do and I’ve done it.
Are you, as a player, fine with the coaches changing your position?
I’m alright. The coach believes I can do it. His conviction is very important. It’s something that the coaches believe and I give my best.
What has changed in Indian football over the last decade?
Nothing major. The boys are doing well. We have got a set team now. People are understanding what they have to do. The league is getting better. Throughout the year, we play for our leagues and then we play for the national team. So, I think it’s an all-round effect for why we are doing reasonably well. But I would not say that we are doing brilliantly, it’s just a few good steps that we have taken. We have to be realistic and keep working hard. We have to be humble
You are being too humble as India’s performance has really improved a lot.
I’m being honest. We haven’t done anything great. We have to keep our feet on the ground, we have to keep our head down and keep working hard. We have worked hard. That’s why we have got results. We need to do more
Has ISL uplifted Indian football?
In a way, yes. The ISL, the I-League, the preparations or the academies, everything. When the national team does well, it’s due to a domino effect from all sides. When every department in the country does well, then only the national team will do well. So, I think it is not just the ISL.
What are ISL’s USPs?
The facilities are amazing, the infrastructure is very good, the packaging is really nice, everything is huge and the scale is massive. The experience of playing with different players from different countries, the high quality of the players: all these things taken together make the ISL special.
How has the financial aspect of the game changed over the period of time?
Definitely, there has been a sea change. The salary a normal player used to earn 14 years back, when I started, is not the same when compared to what the players earn now. It’s good and also there are a lot of players who earn a decent amount of money. Players don’t have to think of their families any more and it’s a good thing. In the same way, let’s hope it keeps improving and the players keep doing well at their levels.
How do youngsters need to choose things carefully?
The players have to be smart. They have to know where they are going, where they are signing and who they are playing for. All the blame can’t be put on the employer, the players have to be smart too. There are so many clubs, there are so many avenues. You have to be smart.
How can India produce better talent in football?
I think we have worked very well and smartly at the grassroot level. It’s not only the AIFF’s job. Everyone has to play its part - the government, the AIFF and others.
India was ranked 173 in 2015 FIFA rankings and now, we stand at the 100th position. The rise is a hopeful one and as a hopeful football enthusiast, I would like to ask the Indian captain when we can expect to see our national team in the FIFA world cup?
The World Cup is too far right now. We have to think more about Asia. If we can do well in Asia, then only can we do well on the world stage. The focus right now is to do well in Asia.
How do you perceive the changes in the technical aspect of the game over the past 14 years?
Everything is better and improving. It has by far become better. Infrastructure is improving, people are being more serious, players are taken better care of, the clubs are more professional and more sensible, we are all working hard on improving things. I just think it’s an all-around effect.
How can we promote the game better? The local tournaments don’t even have banners outside the venue.
The media should help. You guys should broadcast everything, you guys should make a noise. You hold the key.