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Winning ISL is my most memorable moment, says Sunil Chhetri before 150th appearance

Published at :February 23, 2024 at 5:33 PM
Modified at :February 23, 2024 at 5:33 PM
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(Courtesy : ISL Media)

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Sunil Chhetri outlined how the ISL has helped Indian football.

Indian national team skipper and Bengaluru FC talisman Sunil Chhetri will bring up a historic feat on Saturday, February 24, when he completes 150 appearances in the Indian Super League (ISL) as the Blues take on Hyderabad FC at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, starting 7:30 PM IST. The highest Indian goal-scorer in ISL history, Chhetri (60) is just behind Bartholomew Ogbeche (63) in the all-time list, and is arguably the most renowned and reliable striker in India.

It all began in 2015 with Mumbai City FC

Sunil Chhetri began his ISL journey in 2015 in Mumbai City FC colours, scoring seven goals in 11 appearances for the Islanders. He was an instant hit as the supporters relished the sight of an Indian striker taking the competition by the storm straightaway. The Islanders had shelled out a whopping Rs 1.2 crore for Chhetri in the auction before the second season, but he has been a Bengaluru FC mainstay since the club entered the league in 2017. He hit the ground running in his first ISL campaign with the Blues, notching 14 goals and two assists en route to their runners-up finish.

There are certain oppositions he has thrived playing against, which reflects in his numbers – such as the 62% winning rate against arch-rivals Kerala Blasters FC or the nine goals that he has scored against his former team Mumbai City FC. The Islanders and Chhetri share some special connection in fact, with his best scoring record coming against them but them not losing any of the four games that he found the back of the net in during the two seasons he represented the club (2015 & 2016). Clinical is the word that comes to mind when describing Chhetri’s striking abilities, and that shows in his records that comprise 42 goals from inside the box, 16 penalties, one strike from outside of the 18-yard-box and a direct free kick goal that sum up the 60 times he has netted in the ISL.

He has notched two hat-tricks in the ISL, being the only India player to register this feat multiple times. Chhetri has also scored five braces in the competition, having won the league back in 2018-19 with Bengaluru FC and the Player of the Season award in 2017-18 when his side fell short in the final to Chennaiyin FC. Incidentally, the records and achievements feature at the top of his list when asked to recall his most memorable moments from the years that he has spent in the ISL.

“Winning the ISL trophy is my most memorable moment in the league”

“One would be winning the ISL, because that was magical. Rahul Bheke, who is wearing the Mumbai City FC jersey now, scored the winner for us, and that, I will never forget. For completely different reasons, the other one would be losing the ISL final at home against Chennaiyin FC. You can pardon me for being selfish, but the third would be my first hat-trick. When I scored my first hat-trick, I was playing for Mumbai City FC. I reckon that was the first hat-trick ever by an Indian,” Chhetri, who will become the fourth player after Pritam Kotal (157), Amrinder Singh (153) and Mandar Dessai (152) to reach the mark of 150 ISL appearances, said.

Chhetri credited the ISL for grooming the current batch of players for the Blue Tigers. The influx of profound international coaches, players, and overall expertise in the Indian top-tier has helped Indian players get better at their job, courtesy of training daily with these individuals, according to the Indian skipper. He cited the example of seasoned defender Sandesh Jhingan, who was perhaps the first breakout star of the ISL, winning the Emerging Player of the Year award in the inaugural season in 2014.

“ISL has groomed and prepared national team stars”

In many ways, Chhetri has been a torchbearer and a beacon of hope for an entire young generation of footballing superstars who have been unearthed due to the ISL. “ISL has helped in a massive way, and more importantly it’s the grooming of the players who are already playing for the national team. Because, Indian Super League (ISL) is the premier tournament of the country, all the top players representing India play in the ISL. When the league, foreign influx is better, when each and every club improves individually, brings better technology, coaches, players, and all our prospects train with them, they become well and the ISL helps a lot that way,” Chhetri, whose teams have won 33 out of the 51 games he has scored an ISL goal in, said.

“When a young Sandesh Jhingan was training day in, day out, playing the top strikers like Miku, Ogbeche, (Ferran) Corominas, marking them, really helped them improve their game. When you train and play with better players, you become well, and for me that’s the biggest contribution of the ISL to the Indian national team,” he said.

Sunil Chhetri continues to be the highest Indian goal-scorer in ISL 2023-24 at present (4), but more than just numbers, Chhetri has been the leader that the entire pack looks up to whenever the side seeks inspiration. His ability to elevate his performance levels when the stakes are high and simultaneously rally his teammates in their pursuit of doing the unthinkable is pretty unparalleled.

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