The club that gave the world players like Cristiano Ronaldo [ Images ] and Luis Figo will be home to Indian football's poster boy Sunil Chhetri for the next year. He has been signed by Sporting Clube de Portugal, popularly known as Sporting Lisbon [ Images ].
Chhetri, who will leave for the Iberian country in two weeks, will be drafted into the club's B side initially. Based on his performance, the club will take a call on whether he should be fast-tracked into the main squad.
"From 163rd (India's [ Images ] FIFA [ Images ] ranking) to playing in the fifth-ranked nation in the world, it's one opportunity I will never forget in my life," Chhetri said after the deal was made official on Thursday.
"I will have to do a lot of hard work. I will leave no stone unturned, so that I don't regret later in my life. When I am 40, I don't want to feel that I could have done better," he the captain of India's senior football team.
Though the modalities of the deal are yet to be worked out, Chhetri will certainly play this season.
"I am excited. I want to see where do I stand want to grab it with both hands. I can't let go this opportunity."
Chhetri is no stranger to Portugal. He was there quite a few times on a training-cum-exposure trip as part of the Indian squad.
"The training facilities there are excellent. Now I feel like a 14-year-old. I will not be Sunil Chhetri there (referring to his popularity in India)."
While Chhetri was naturally over the moon, no less excited was All India Football Federation president Praful Patel [ Images ], who called the development the "beginning of a new era" in Indian football.
"It is truly a very remarkable occasion for Indian football. It's an important milestone. He will be playing shoulder to shoulder with some of the top players of the world. This is a beginning of a new era in Indian football," Patel told reporters.
"Sunil will bring a lot of focus of the international football community towards India," he added.
Emphasising on the youth development programme, Patel said, "AIFF's objective is that if India's football has to be on par with the rest of the world, we need to have a strong base. The real issues in football in India sometimes get ignored by media, but the AIFF is now trying very hard to improve grassroots of the game."
A jersey of Sporting Lisbon was presented to Chhetri by the club's vice-president Aureliano Oliveira Neves.
"Our purpose together with the Indian football federation is to help design the right path for increasing football in India. Signing Chhetri is our first sign of commitment to Indian football."
Portugal's ambassador to India Jorge Roza de Oliveira, observed: "How can a nation with 1.2 billion people not produce 11 football players?"
"We have the right infrastructure and academies. 11 of the 23 players of the Portugal team in Euro have played for our club," Oliveira pointed out.
The deal was arranged by sports management firm Football One, the football arm of Wizcraft International Entertainment's new venture Sports One.
Chhetri is the second footballer from India to play in Europe after India's legendary Baichung Bhutia, who signed with English club Bury FC in 1999.
In the 2010-11 season, Chhetri briefly played for MLS side Sporting Kansas City.