The Blue Tigers skipper spoke about his memories and inspiration on his glorious 15-year journey so far.
Sunil Chhetri attended a live session on Facebook hosted by the Indian Football Team commemorating 15 years since his debut for the national team. He made his international debut in a friendly against Pakistan on 12 June 2005 where he also notched up the only goal for his nation in a 1-1 draw.
Since then, Chhetri has gone on to represent India 115 times and is the leading scorer for the nation with 72 goals. He is also second in the list of active international goalscorers, only behind Cristiano Ronaldo (99). Further, he has gone on to win various accolades and titles in his journey including the prestigious Padma Shri Award in 2019, which is the 4th highest civilian award of the nation.
Chhetri recounted many memories throughout his career ranging from his debut, his teammates, the experience he gained and how it shaped him as a player and as a human.
He said, “When I came in, it was very easy because the seniors were always so nice to me. They obviously scolded me and were competitive but it was all in a good spirit because they knew that I could give more than what I was giving and they kept motivating me to do better.”
“The influence of Bhaichung bhai (Bhutia) was immense. I remember when I was in the 9th or 10th standard, we went to watch the Durand Cup in Delhi. Bhaichung bhai was there. I signed for Mohun Bagan and then I got the news that he had also joined the club. On the first day, he met me and told me that ‘I have heard about you and you are doing well.’ I told everyone in my family and friends that Bhaichung told me that,” said Chhetri.
He added, “I would say I was very fortunate to have seniors like Renedy bhai (Singh) and Bhaichung bhai. There were other players like Mahesh Gawli, Gouramangi Singh and many others who were great teammates and those were very memorable times for me.”
Speaking in particular about Gouramangi, Chhetri said, “When I saw him, he wasn’t the most talented player. But he was always working with the coach and always wanting to work hard. It is all because he keeps thinking and always learns so fast that is why he has been able to play for these many years and scored about 10 goals in around 70 games.”
It is without a doubt that the veteran striker has had his best time with current ISL club Bengaluru FC. Chhetri won the ISL title in 2018-19 with the Blues and won the I-League twice before that along with host of other trophies. When asked about what made his side so special, he replied, “It is not very different (from other ISL clubs). One good thing is that everyone in our club is in sync and works very well. Our hiring has been great, the team has done a great job.”
“A lot of talk is on our performance but off the pitch the team has done an unbelievable job. Even the social media team connects with people and they are incredible in their job. I believe they are not spoken much about their job, they work so hard and they are so innovative. They match the fire the boys have (on the pitch) and everyone always wants to improve. No one gets to rest, everyone wants to push. We have our own standards to match.”
When asked about his childhood idols, Sunil Chhetri revealed, “There were many. The first one I remember was IM Vijayan and then later on in India it was Bhaichung Bhutia and overall it was Ronaldo (Nazario).”
India is currently set to host the upcoming FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup which is scheduled for early next year. Chhetri views these tournaments as an excellent opportunity for players to rub shoulders with the best young talent in the world.
“It’s massive. We already saw what the U-17 World Cup did for our country, some of the boys from that team are so confident, so many people are playing well and it’s because of the exposure that they have got. It prepares them well for the future and we have to keep getting these tournaments and I am so happy that AIFF is working to get these tournaments,” said a beaming Chhetri.
“I’m really happy and looking forward to the World Cup. It is a massive opportunity for them. You would want to play in these tournaments and play at the stage.”
There is also the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup and Chhetri urged the women players to stay on their toes. “There is time but start preparing from now on everything. It is going to be a different level and you are going to play against the best teams in Asia. So it is going to be tough. Go on the pitch, and enjoy. That is why we play football.”
When asked about the difference in opportunities and exposure for the players, Sunil Chhetri held no regrets talking about his career. “I’ve got no regrets and that is how life is. We evolve and life is always going to be easier. Maybe we would’ve been better players had we also gone on exposure trips like today’s generation but I don’t regret it, I’ve completed 15 years playing for my country and I’m living my dream and no one else has done that.”
“This is the time when I’m at the happiest in my career. I’m at my fittest, I am what I was when I started off. Until there are some players who get me on the bench and I have to leave, I believe I am good to go,” added Chhetri giving evidence of his desire to continue playing.
Chhetri lauded the efforts of the various age-group teams in their respective competitions saying “As the captain of the country and a fan of the team I want to see all the teams play at the top levels in the world. Especially the U-16 team under Bibiano Fernandes plays very attractive football and it gives me great hope for the future. They are better than us (at the same age) and I hope all age-groups improve and the team plays well at the top.”
“There have to be five Thapas knocking on the door and five more players looking to get over him. That is the level of competition we want to have in the team. I see all these young players doing it and I’m very happy about it,” concluded Sunil Chhetri.