From Sunil to ‘Sir’ Chhetri

Indian footballer Sunil Chhetri attends the 'NRI of the Year Awards' in Mumbai on July 11, 2018. (Photo by Sujit Jaiswal / AFP)

After overtaking Lionel Messi in terms of international goals scored, Sunil Chhetri’s name is firmly placed in India’s footballing history

Something amazing went down in the books of Indian footballing history earlier this week. Skipper Sunil Chhetri took his international goal tally to a whopping 67 goals after scoring a brace for the Indian team in their Asian Cup opener against Thailand—an achievement that took him past Argentina’s Lionel Messi in terms of international goals scored.

Chhetri scored a goal in each half of the match against Thailand, which India went on to win 4-1. This is the country’s biggest win in Asian Cup history; previously, India had won 3-1 against Hong Kong in the 1964 edition of the tournament. Additionally, with a total of four goals to his name, the captain has also gone on to become the Indian player with the most number of goals to his name at the Asian Cup.

The second goal scored by Chhetri barely minutes after both teams returned to the field after the half-time whistle demonstrates the innate qualities that make him the player he is today: calm, clinical, and confident

He’s come a long way from being the “next Bhaichung” to being recognised as a player who imbibes and learns from every footballing encounter. His sudden change of pace, hunger for the ball, and ability to find the top bin from outside the box—thereby leaving the goalkeeper ball-gazing and glued to the ground—is a trait every centre forward hopes to achieve.

India’s forward Sunil Chhetri (R) fights for the ball with Thailand’s defender Chalermpong Kerdkaew during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Group A football game between Thailand and India at the Al Nahyan Stadium stadium in Abu Dhabi on January 6, 2019. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

But not everyone is born a hero—and Chhetri is no exception to the rule.

Sukhwinder “Sukhi” Singh, who coached Chhetri during the latter’s young days at junior India and JCT FC back in 2005, describes his first impression of the then Mohun Bagan striker. “We thought he was very a talented player. His ball control was good, he was ambidextrous, and in spite of being short, he had a really good aerial jump,” said Sukhi. It was Bhaichung Bhutia who had then recommended that the young striker be taken into the team. At the time, Chhetri had represented big clubs like Mohun Bagan but wasn’t established in the international arena. “What sets him apart is his ability to learn and execute. He studies his opponents, learns from their mistakes, and improvises his game. I still watch him very closely … he never stops learning.”

Chhetri put on the Indian jersey for the first time in 2005, under the guidance of coach Sukhi Singh. It goes without saying that having seen him evolve into the player he is today, Singh is nothing short of proud of how far the now-Indian skipper has come, emphasising Chhetri’s professional commitment to football. “The first time we took him in the Indian team as a striker, our training base was at Shahpur at the time. It was a good ground with modern facilities. But since it was located on the outskirts, there was not much to do for the players after training and playing their matches, and a lot of the other players did not like this. But Sunil loved the peacefulness that the spot had to it.”

Chhetri’s amicable nature gives him the aura of a boyish teammate and not that of a sporting celebrity—which he has been for some time now. At a GQ Awards ceremony last year where he was bestowed with the Sporting Achievement of the Year award, the most capped Indian skipper sent the audience into splits after joking about how he was sure he was winning the award for his good looks and not for his footballing skills.

Even while being compared with the likes of Messi and Ronaldo after he overtook the former in terms of international goals scored, Chhetri’s modesty comes through in his response. “It’s not even fair. The two players who are above me are completely world stars. I am a big fan of Messi and Ronaldo. There is a massive difference between them and us. There is no comparison at all.”

Rupayan Bhattacharya, sports editor of Ei Samay newspaper, says: “Sunil’s main plus point is the development of his fitness. He has moulded himself in a big way. If you consider the three most talented players in the history of Indian football—IM Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia, and Sunil Chhetri—it is Sunil’s fitness that sets him apart from the rest. He (Sunil) has also shown the Indian footballers how education can play an important role in developing one’s game. He is very interested in taking the right nutrition to keep himself fit. After his stint at Kansas City, he has understood what to do and what to avoid.”

When asked about Chhetri’s comparison with the likes of Messi, he said: To me, it’s like comparing Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli. When Sachin was playing, everyone thought no-one could overtake him, but then Kohli came into the picture. However, if you consider Sunil’s fitness level and focus on football—he should be considered as the Indian Ronaldo and not Messi. Messi was born talented but Ronaldo has completely created himself from scratch.”

The 34-year-old has come a long way from being the boy who ran towards the stands where Pakistani fans were seated after scoring a goal against the Pakistan football team on their home turf. The emphasis lies on training, being focused, and concentrating only on what makes you stronger. “Eyes on the prize” seems to be his motto.

The talismanic Indian skipper is a prime example of what one can achieve by sheer hard work and dedication—even if the odds are not in their favour.

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