The five star lifestyles of Indian footballers Sunil Chhetri, Pronay Halder, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu

Drishti Vij and Sarah Mirza

Unholy hours turn into the most sacred time of the day. Throaty growls are followed by outright euphoria. Desolated bars become boisterous. Fans turn into fanatics. Friends turn into foes. Girlfriends are forsaken. Work can wait. In football, there’s simply no middle ground. It isn’t just a sport – it is, rightly so, a religion. So, when our photoshoot is tightly packed between preparations for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and an ongoing English Premier League on the television – we knew we’ll be vying for attention.

The fantastic four of Indian football talk about focus, their love for EPL and more. ((From left) On Jeje: Shirt, jacket and trousers, Itoh; shoes, Berluti; On Gurpreet: Coat, Massimo Dutti; joggers, T-shirt and shoes, Nike; On Sunil: Jacket and shoes, Berluti; trousers, Dhruv Vaish; On Pronay: Jacket, Massimo Dutti; shirt, Abraham & Thakore; trousers, Dhruv Vasih; shoes, Berluti) (Shivamm Paathak)

We’re waiting for our cover stars with the usual anxiety for any shoot, swiftly moving from the hair and make-up station to the dedicated dressman. Timing, just like most football games (Beckham became a household name in 2.8 seconds), was crucial for this shoot. And we were, after all, waiting for the fantastic four of Indian football – the unflinchingly poised captain Sunil Chhetri (popularly known as the ‘goal machine’ of India), the goofy goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Mizoram’s shy yet sensational Jeje Lalpekhlua and the steely midfielder from West Bengal, Pronay Halder.

The firebrand: Sunil Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri is the highest paid footballer in the country. (Jacket, Berluti) (Shivamm Paathak)

Sunil Chhetri is the face of Indian football, the highest paid footballer in the country, and the record-breaking striker who shares his international goal tally with Lionel Messi. He’s friends with Bollywood A-listers like Ranbir Kapoor. “We mostly talk about football,” he says. He looks up to legends like boxer Mary Kom. “Meeting Mary didi gave me goosebumps. She’s one of the best sportspersons the country has seen in recent times,” he says. He drives fancy cars. “If it weren’t for my father, I would’ve had 10 to 12 sports cars by now,” he laughs.

But whether it’s a viral video requesting people to support the game, his tireless training for a match, or his clothes for a photoshoot, Chhetri demands nothing less than perfection. How else could a player survive for almost two decades in a sport where stardom can become a cautionary tale?

“If it weren’t for my father, I would’ve had 10 to 12 sports cars by now”

“I’ve learnt to keep myself away from distractions,” says the 34-year-old footballer. “People chanting your name, picking you up on their shoulders – it gets overwhelming, especially with social media. But the only place you should feel that way is on the pitch.”

Stardom, Chhetri feels, is momentary. “The race isn’t about fame. It’s not about Virat (Kohli) having 10 sports cars. It’s about every sport getting its due. The privilege of playing for your country is unparalleled. At the end of the day, we feel equally happy when (Saina) Nehwal, Leander Paes or (Sania) Mirza do well. We need to broaden the horizons,” he says.

The Stormtrooper: Jeje Lalpekhlua

Jeje is passionate about sneakers and travels every now and then to the Maldives. (Shirt, Pawan Sachdeva; jacket, Dhruv Vaish; denims, Levi’s; shoes, Berluti) (Shivamm Paathak)

Courtesy could be 27-year-old Jeje Lalpekhlua’s middle name. He will drag a heavy chair for you across the hall as easily as he scores in the Indian Super League (he is the highest goal scorer in the ISL). And though he loves luxury brands like Hermès, is passionate about his sneakers, and travels every now and then to the Maldives, the most special thing he has ever bought is a car for his father. His personality – sweet, simple and slightly shy – is unlike that of a stereotypical jock.

Jeje grew up in Mizoram – India’s football powerhouse – so dribbling the ball is almost second-nature to him. “I started playing when I was in the first standard. Everyone in my family plays football,” he reveals. But turning the sport into a career wasn’t easy. “When I told my father I want to become a footballer, he asked me to focus on my studies. I started playing seriously after finishing class 10,” explains Jeje.

“I don’t like to party... I’d rather play FIFA at home!”

Now India’s second highest paid Indian footballer, Jeje – popularly known as the Mizo striker – is living his dream. Perhaps this is why he has left no stone unturned to encourage young talent in his own village. “I organise a charity camp every season. I’ve organised it twice in my village. Almost 50 kids are part of it. I plan to continue in many more villages,” he smiles.

The prodigy: Pronay Halder

Pronay enjoys playing football the most when his fans are around. (Shirt and pants, Dhruv Vaish; jacket, Pawan Sachdeva) (Shivamm Paathak)

There was never a time when Pronay Halder wanted to play anything but football. Perhaps this is why he enjoys playing the most when his fans are around. “It is special when they come to support us in the stadium. We feel really motivated as a team when there is a crowd,” he reveals. “I knew I wanted to play since I was four. Football runs in my family. My father is now a coach and he is my inspiration.”

Calm, cool and collected, 25-year-old Pronay hails from Kolkata and has been an active player in the past for Asia’s most famous derby rivalry between Mogun Bagan and East Bengal. He knows how the support for football in India has grown. But much more is needed to make the game popular, he says. “We need to create more facilities for people at the grassroots level,” he says. “In Spain and Qatar, there’s great support for children who want to play football. The age of six or seven is the right age to build good skills in a player.”

“In Spain and Qatar, there’s great support for children who want to play football. We need to create more facilities...”

Nevertheless, he feels the Indian Super League has made positive changes. “With the I-League, some teams had facilities while others did not. After ISL, all clubs have better facilities and Indian football has improved. Now we go abroad for exposure. I got a chance to play with Lúcio in the Brazil World Cup. I asked him what our team can do to improve and he shared some valuable insights,” says Pronay.

Pronay feels the Indian Super League has gone through some positive changes. (Shirt and pants, Dhruv Vaish; jacket, Pawan Sachdeva; shoes, Berluti) (Shivamm Paathak)

The goofy goalkeeper: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu

Gurpreet loves high-end watches and sports cars, and is a prompt poser. (T-shirt, Pawan Sachdeva; jacket, Dhruv Vaish; joggers, Nike) (Shivamm Paathak)

Gurpreet is quick to poke fun at his mates, a prompt poser who loves high-end watches and sports cars. And, when I ask him how success and stardom have changed his life, he laughs, “I’m not that famous. Sunil Chhetri is the most famous person I’ve partied with.”

However, he doesn’t let his mischievous side take over his passion for the sport. “It’s important that sportspeople don’t stay in a bubble. It’s easy to not train enough or miss a practice. But to grow as a person and player, one needs to stay in touch with reality,” he says.

“I’m not that famous. Sunil Chhetri is the most famous person I’ve partied with”

Sandhu started playing football at the impressionable age of eight in Chandigarh. But it wasn’t until he received a sports scholarship that he started watching and playing the game. “I didn’t choose the game – the game chose me. I started my career with East Bengal in Kolkata and then played in Norway (for Norwegian club Stabæk) for three years. One year ago I joined the most successful club in India – Bengaluru FC,” he reveals.

He believes that more needs to be done to change India’s perspective not only about football, but all sport. “It’s a cultural change which will come slowly once people start seeing sports in the comfort of their homes. A few years ago, you would not see people watching any other sport on television except cricket. But now they do. Once we have consistency and sustainability in that manner, we won’t be that far from seeing someone play at the top level,” he concludes.

Join in the conversation using #FootballersWithFocus

From HT Brunch, January 27, 2019

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