The Indian skipper has had a long and colourful journey with the Blue Tigers.
On 12th of June in 2005, a young boy named Sunil Chhetri took the field against India’s traditional rivals Pakistan. I was a 12-year-boy back then and like most Indians, was oblivious to the fact that my country even played football. But the Indian football team was just in its fledgeling years and Chhetri scored his first goal on his debut.
India have had a rollercoaster ride since the turn of the century and have qualified twice for the Asian Cup since Captain Fantastic made his debut for the national team. Being just a 20-year-old player from Mohun Bagan, Chhetri was one of those prospects who was touted for greatness since his early days.
Who knew, all those predictions would come true? Sunil Chhetri has played more than 100 games since his debut for the Indian national team and has always been on blistering form for the Blue Tigers. In India, football has never been a career option, until recently. But, Chhetri defied those odds and completed his 13th year playing for the national team in 2018.
Football was always in his genes, as his father represented the Indian Army in football and his mother, Sushila was a Nepal national team player along with her twin sister. But, things did not come easy for him on the financial front. Having done his schooling in Sikkim, he was not immediately introduced to the sport that would one day hold him in such high regard.
In his earliest days in football, Chhetri played for City FC in New Delhi, in the Delhi Senior Division and was picked by Mohun Bagan later. He was at the club from the 2002-2003 season and scored eight goals for them in the National Football League (NFL) in three seasons before leaving for JCT.
Here, began the upward swing in his career as goals flowed freely and Chhetri became a household name in the making at JCT. He played tirelessly for the club and helped them finish second in the NFL and third in the inaugural season of the I-League. He also won the AIFF Best Footballer Award in the year 2007 for his performances for club and country.
On the national front, in the SAME year, Chhetri played his first tournament for India in the erstwhile Nehru Cup. In the opening game, he scored two goals against Cambodia in a 6-0 drubbing, registering India’s biggest win in international football.
The climb was upwards from here on, on the national front, but the same couldn’t be said at club level. He was called on trial by many teams in Europe and he did exceedingly well there. He was even offered a three-year contract by Queens Park Rangers in 2009, but it wasn’t meant to be.
After being denied a work permit, which meant that India’s favourite son was not allowed to play in England he then went on to join the Kansas City Wizards team in Major League Soccer (MLS) after short stints with East Bengal and Dempo SC.
But, the American dream too proved far-fetched as he made only two appearances for the team. But, these setbacks did not deter him and he came back to India and played strongly, establishing himself as the man to watch out for.
Coming back to the national team, Chhetri was leading the attack on all fronts as India won the SAFF Championship in 2008. This gave India a chance to play in the AFC Challenge Cup which allowed the winners a spot in the Asian Cup.
Chhetri led the line with Climax Lawrence and ensured India a win in the Challenge Cup, securing qualification to the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in 24 years. Although India were knocked out of the tournament in the first round, Chhetri scored two brilliant goals against Bahrain and South Korea.
In 2012, after the retirement of Bhaichung Bhutia, Chhetri took on the mantle of the captain’s armband for the national team and has since led India in all competitions. During this time, his club career also started to stabilize after a short stint with Portugal’s Sporting CP’s B team.
He was loaned from the Portuguese club to Churchill Brothers and led them to their second I-league title. He was later signed by Bengaluru FC in 2013 in their very first season of existence and became a household star for the Blues.
As things started clicking at club level, Stephen Constantine was appointed India’s coach for a second time and was charged with leading the country in the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers. Despite being knocked out early on in qualification, India regrouped again under the leadership of Chhetri and the coach built an unbeaten run of 14 games around him, leading India to the Asian Cup 2019 as table toppers.
Chhetri’s most memorable goal came against the Kyrgyz Republic in Bengaluru where he scored out of nowhere to give India win against the mighty Central Asian side. He has been scoring wondrously ever since and in his 99th game for India against Chinese Taipei, he scored a hat-trick.
After his 100th game, there was nothing but wonder and joy in our hearts as he yet again rose up to the occasion and scored a brace. His tally of 72 goals for India is only behind Cristiano Ronaldo now in the list of active international goalscorers, which itself calls for a celebration. The game against Kenya, although ruined by rain in the first half, could not stop the captain fantastic from his usual best which was portrayed by an amazing goal in the second half.
He embodies what Indian football is through his own struggles and his inspirational run of games for the country. There has never been anyone like Sunil Chhetri in recent memory and he surely is a living legend alongside another Indian football great IM Vijayan.
He has touched hearts nationwide and his influence has reached foreign shores as Chinese Taipei’s coach said, “He showed to my young players how to deal with the senior level. My players will definitely utilise the experience in a positive manner. Congratulations to Sunil for his wonderful career and the goals. The youngsters from my team will certainly look up to him someday.”
Dear Sunil Chhetri, many congratulations for your 100th game against Kenya and may you have many more for the nation that promises to stand by you through thick and thin.