By Shikharr Chandra
The inaugural edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) was full of promises and high expectations, especially with the high profile names embracing the two month long tournament. Along with the house-hold names like Alessandro Del Piero and Robert Pires, the fans were keen to know more about the likes of Alexander Tzorvas or a Kostas Katsouranis, few players who not many in the Indian audience were aware of.
Another such name in the list of foreign stars was that of Michael Chopra, the Indian-origin who has plied his trade in the English Premier League. Having scored close to 100 goals in English football with the likes of Newcastle United, Sunderland and more famously with Cardiff City, Chopra brought with himself not only loads of experience but a sense of belongingness with the Indian audience.
His early comments on being part of Indian football certainly helped him earn more fan following in the country.
"I want to be part of the legend of Sachin Tendulkar," said the striker "Everyone knows him because of how well he's done in cricket and hopefully I can follow in his footsteps in football. Things are really starting to take off in India now and after the Super League I want to stay over there. I want to play in the I-League,” he said prior to the tournament.
He also expressed his desire to be a part of the Indian national team and was ready to give up his British passport for the same. Seeing the dedication and interest that the striker took to help promote Indian football, it seemed like Chopra was taking all the right steps to integrate himself with the fans.
In the international players draft, Chopra became the first player to be selected by Kerala Blasters.
David James the head coach and the marquee player was obviously aware of Chopra's profile after having played against him in the Premier League. One of the major advantages of having someone like Chopra in the squad was that that in addition to all the experience he carried on the field, he was only 30 and certainly had age on his side, unlike the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Del Piero or Pires who seemed to have lost their best days long back.
With players like Milagres Gonsalves, Chinadorai Sabeeth and Andrew Barisic completing the line-up in attack, there was an extra bit of pressure on the former Ipswich striker, as he was expected to lead the attack for the Blasters in the tournament.
Chopra made a cameo appearance in the 1-0 loss against NorthEast United and missed a string of opportunities. Things turned much worse for the striker as he got injured in the training ahead of the game against Atletico de Kolkata.
With the striker already looking a bit rusty in the opening couple of games of the tournament, the injury certainly did not help as his team found themselves rooted to the bottom end of the table.
What was surprising to see though was how poor his fitness levels were compared to some of the other foreign players. Having been released by Blackpool earlier this year after making just 18 appearances in all competitions and scoring none, it seemed like James' gamble in the drafts was back-firing. The English custodian had revealed of having spoken to Chopra before picking him in the drafts. Probably a thorough check on his fitness ought to have been done by James who certainly wasn't short of options in the draft. This poor decision led to Blasters struggling for goals throughout the competition.
The foreign players were expected to be a role model for the Indians in the ISL so as to help the latter develop further. However in Chopra’s case, the fitness of the Indian strikers in the league was way better than the 30-year old.
With Kerala Blasters struggling to qualify for the semi-finals, the onus was on Chopra to spearhead their faltering attack which was completely dependent on Ian Hume.
However, the former Newcastle United striker never really impressed in the competition and failed to find the back of the net. He was lucky not to have been sent-off for his malicious two-footed challenge from behind on NorthEast United’s James Keene.
While he did play for 120 minutes against Chennaiyin FC in the second leg of the semi-final and did manage to hold the ball upfront, his performance wasn’t praiseworthy.
He was slow when it came to chasing the ball and could never really form a partnership with the likes of Stephen Pearson and Hume behind him. The defenders found it easy to outrun him when tracking back and they had to break little sweat when it came to man-marking him.
Kerala managed the least goals in the tournament and one of the primary reasons was that their most experienced number nine failed to get going in the competition.
He was handed a start in the finals against Atletico De Kolkata, which certainly looked like a major gamble by James.
Although Chopra did manage a mere two shots on goal, his disappointing misses certainly played a key role in the side's 1-0 defeat.
While his first shot was from a tight angle and hardly troubled the goalkeeper, his second chance from four yards out was denied by a fine save from Ede Bete.
Chopra's statistics of zero goals and zero assists from his nine appearances in the tournament was arguably the worst amongst the foreign players who played a handful of games.
Prior to the tournament his words on Indian football were certainly encouraging, but with performances like the ones seen in the ISL, it seems the 171st ranked side in world football is better off without the former Newcastle striker in the national team.
For the I-League clubs who were planning to pounce on the opportunity of buying Chopra certainly need to rethink their decision and probably ask him to prove his fitness fist as opposed to flaunting his CV.
Actions speak louder than words and in Chopra’s case, it certainly holds true.