Home News Thank you, Sunil Chhetri: India’s talisman-leader-ambassador-diplomat gears up for last hurrah

Thank you, Sunil Chhetri: India’s talisman-leader-ambassador-diplomat gears up for last hurrah

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When Bhaichung Bhutia was injured in 2005, head coach Sukhwinder Singh was looking around for options to replace him for a match away to Pakistan.

He looked around before he took a punt with a young Sunil Chhetri, who he was not convinced by. How is a striker, all of 5’7”, going to stack up against the rigours of international football? It didn’t take long for Sukhwinder to be vindicated when Chhetri put the ball in the net to get his first India goal.

He would go on to further to do the same another 93 times in 149 appearances. These numbers stand as record tallies for an Indian footballer. His international goal tally put him only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among active men’s footballers.

It’s a stat which even Chhetri doesn’t take too seriously.

Ronaldo and Messi have operated on an otherworldly level during their respective careers with their national teams compared to Chhetri. But every time someone comes across this record, one can’t ignore Chhetri or India on the global map. It’s not often that an Indian football story shares the spotlight with the superstars of this world.

Chhetri does not have any Ballon d’Ors or World Cup appearances. In fact, he has not got past the second round of qualifying. But he has harboured the dream, just like over a billion people in India have.

“I have so many dreams about the day [qualifying for the World Cup]. It’s going to be humongous,” he told FIFA last year. When the u-17 boys prepared to play India’s first-ever World Cup at home in 2017, he told them, “I would give up 15 years of my career to come back and play in the World Cup.” But unfortunately for him, that dream will now never be fulfilled.

For all the talent and single-minded determination he possesses, it has not been easy being Chhetri. Amid repeated mismanagement from the authorities who govern the sport, he has still emerged as a superstar of the game. Despite all the impediments, each time he steps out on the field, he gives it his all.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has in Chhetri a striker-captain-talisman-spokesperson-ambassador-diplomat all rolled into one and who has repeatedly saved their faces.

And to have done it for 19 years at the top level is no easy feat. Chhetri has had two distinct career spells through his 20s and 30s. In the first half of his career until 2013, he scored 41 goals in 74 matches.

A phase during which, his former Bengaluru FC head coach Ashley Westwood, described him as ‘pudgy’ and ‘didn’t know his responsibilities’, leading to a change in his outlook towards fitness.

Then, in the second half, after turning 30, he has 53 goals in 76 matches. It’s a testament to his commitment to keep evolving through the times and staying relevant. Only two years back, at 38, he beat his much younger Bengaluru FC teammates at a bleep test in pre-season. “Think before you call me old,” he cautioned.

He is not one for fancy dribbles or stepovers or rainbow flicks. And over the last few years, he has not been one for over-the-top celebrations, either.

His ‘see ball, put your laces through it’ mantra has served him well and has made him a reliable source of goals for many head coaches both club and country. When India needs him, he has remained bankable. Be it the Nehru Cups or the SAFF championships or the Asian Cup or the World Cup qualifiers or Asian Cup qualifiers.

But being Chhetri, he has had his battles both on and off the field. Footballers in India aren’t afforded the luxury of cricketers, who have fans turn up in numbers all over the world to show their love for the sport.

When India took on Chinese Taipei in the 2018 Intercontinental Cup, only 2500 fans filled up the Mumbai Football Arena. Ahead of his 100th game, it was the captain, who had to put on his marketing hat and make an impassioned plea, asking the fans to come watch his team play.

And he has never been the one to tell a supporter how to show their passion for the game. “Abuse us, criticise us, but please come to watch the national team play,” Chhetri said.

In 2021, he scored a ‘goal’ which wouldn’t be part of any FIFA and AIFF record books but will still be remembered for years to come by many. He used his status and popularity to aid the frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19 in 2021 by handing over his Twitter (now X) account to journalists to amplify information.

“Our country is going through difficult times. The pain, suffering and loss all around us are depressing and tragic. Amidst all of this, there are so many of us who have helped — helped each other and helped complete strangers,” he posted.

When the Asian Games saga involving the AIFF and the Indian Super League (ISL) clubs unfolded embarrassingly last year, it was Chhetri, once again, who put his hand up to travel to Hangzhou.

Yet again, he put his hands up together, requesting the ISL teams to release their players to a little-to-no success. There, he had to turn a player-cum-coach on the pitch, guiding a group of inexperienced players through to the knockouts.

Much like his football, Chhetri has always been level-headed about the ground reality of the sport in the country. Yet, a part of him can’t help but dream.

“It’s not going to be magical, but oh… it’s going to be magical also,” beamed Chhetri to a room packed with media personnel on Thursday, as he tried to describe what a third-round World Cup qualification would mean.

“I have peace from inside. I have given whatever I have had. Imagine Kuwait vs India in the second round and this is what we get [heightened anticipation], imagine in the third round, we are playing against Japan. Imagine playing against Australia.

Imagine what the euphoria is going to be like. That is why the win is important, that’s why we want everyone to come together and put everything. We may or may not get there, but the effort has to be honest,” said Chhetri.

His realistic target is seeing India make the top 10 of Asian football, currently at 22, and staying there. But he won’t be there on the field when the day comes. Instead, he is content with the idea of putting on his best-tailored suit and sitting in the stands to watch his boys play. “Being me, I will get free tickets,” he said sheepishly.

On Thursday, for the last time, Chhetri, with all his honesty, can still have a say in his preferred India blue jersey and help chart Indian football’s way on the global map, once again.

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