The golden boot

- July 24, 2023

Sunil Chhetri, who has helped India rise in international football rankings in recent times and led the team to the SAFF Cup win this month, was marked for greatness since his adolescence

Top of charts: India captain Sunil Chhetri is the leading goal-scorer in international football behind Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Iran’s Ali Daei and Argentina’s Lionel Messi

Sunil Chhetri, who led India to title victory in the SAFF Cup this month and is the fourth highest goal-scorer in international football behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Ali Daei and Lionel Messi, made a key decision over two decades ago that was to change his life and set him on course to stardom. 

Back in early 2000s, after his high school from Dhaula Kuan’s Army Public School, Chhetri enrolled himself at Mamta Modern Senior Secondary School (Vikaspuri) for further studies. It was the lure of football that attracted him to the Vikaspuri school, said a former national player Rajinder Sajwan. 

In the late 1990s, Mamta Modern School was considered a hub of football in Delhi. 

The school team won the U-16 boys’ 1998 edition of the prestigious Subroto Cup Football Tournament, a national level interschool football tournament organised by the Indian Air Force annually in Delhi. Initially, Chhetri’s father was reluctant to change the school, said Sajwan, but agreed later. 

Taste of victory: Sunil Chhetri led India to SAFF Cup win this month. India beat Kuwait in the final Photo: AIFF

“It was a kind of a turning point for Chhetri. He got more opportunities to play and he made the most of the platform,” Sajwan added. 

This month, after he guided India to win over Kuwait, an invitational team, in the final to the country’s ninth SAFF title in Bengaluru, he summed up his journey in a nutshell, paying tribute to his family. 

“There were lots of ups and downs. There was a high point; amazing people were part of my journey, including my family and wife,” Chhetri said in response to a question by Patriot, before adding that it is an honour to be skipper of the Indian team. 

Through the campaign that culminated with a 5-4 penalty-shootout win over the middle-eastern country, Chhetri and his team maintained great discipline. 

The Indian skipper has made efforts to instil discipline among the members of the national team, which to some extent paved the way for the victory. 

“In the build-up to the SAFF Cup, we (the team) followed a strict diet plan. There was temptation among the players to enjoy food of their choice, but they all were determined not to break rules,” Chhetri told media in an interaction. 

“[But] After winning the SAFF Cup, the players were seen enjoying food of their choice in the hotel lobby. It was fine, I was happy as the job was done.” 

The seeds of discipline as well as singleminded focus were sown early. 

Football fans, teachers and former players associated with Chhetri in one way or the other during his formative years of football in Delhi describe Chhetri as a marvel. 

First steps: Sunil Chhetri’s first steps in football were taken at Mamta Modern School. Soon he shifted to City Football Club from where he was spotted. Photo: AIFF

Surinder Kumar, a former Delhi footballer, who was also coach of the state team for Santosh Trophy in which Chhetri was also a part, recalls Chhetri as an extraordinary player during his formative years. 

“No doubt he was exceptionally talented at the school and highly disciplined too. These qualities enabled him to make rapid progress and eventually make a mark at the national level,” Surinder said. “He also had the qualities to play at different positions, including mid-field.

“He was exceptional at school level. Former Delhi Soccer Association (DSA) vice-president DK Bose used to organise a tournament in St Columbus. I was invited to pick the best footballer, forward, defender, mid-fielder and goalkeeper for the tournament. Chhetri was very good and he won the Player of the Tournament Award. I thought he deserved it. It was very clear that he was destined for greatness. He had much better stamina than others.”

Aneet Dhuliya, an official of the Mamta Modern School said that Chhetri was God-gifted, while Sajwan said Chhetri had an inborn talent for football.

Apart from talent, he was hardworking and intelligent, Dhuliya said.

“He had an inclination to learn. All good qualities made him a hero in little time,” recalls Dhuliya.

Chhetri twice represented the Indian schools football team (U19) at the Asian School Football tournament and emerged as the top goal-scorer, Dhuliya added. 

“Being the top-scorer was a step towards stardom.” According to Sharafat Ullah, Delhi’s City Football Club enrolled Chhetri in early 2000s, which gave him more opportunities to showcase his potential at a bigger stage. 

“I saw him playing during a local school football tournament. From his body language I could judge he has bundles of talent,” recalls Delhi’s veteran sports administrator and president of City FC. 

City FC, said Sharafat Ullah, were in process of building a team and selected a couple of youngsters along with Chhetri. 

Chhetri represented City FC in Delhi league and other tournaments from time to time. 

However, the major break-through came when City FC played the prestigious Durand Football Tournament, the oldest in the country, at the Ambedkar Stadium. “Our club was playing against Border Security Force (BSF) team from Punjab in the national-level tournament. Chhetri gave a good account of himself. He was also declared the emerging player of the tournament. Since there were officials from Kolkata’s clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, they approached Chhetri to play for them,” Sharafat Ullah added. 

“He was strong and had good shooting skills. Since he had good fitness, he continued to improve his skills with each passing day.” 

While he was still in school, Kolkata giant Mohun Bagan signed him for three years. 

“Indeed, it was a giant leap for a teenager into the competitive world of Indian football,” Dhuliya said. According to Mohammad Sajid, secretary of the City FC, Chhetri’s parents were initially reluctant to send him to Kolkata, but eventually agreed. 

“They wanted him to join the army, but we told them he has an inclination towards football and they should give him a chance,” Sajid recalls the challenging time Chhetri faced. 

Off the field, Sharafat Ullah said, the current Indian skipper was highly disciplined. 

“He was friendly and had a good temperament on the play field,” the City FC president added. 

Facilities not up to standard

The facilities at Mamta Modern Senior Secondary School were ordinary, Dhuliya said. 

“The football ground in school wasn’t the standard size — 110m long and 49m wide — but good enough for practice,” Dhuliya added. 

“There were more than 40 players, including Chhetri who were provided free boarding and lodging.” 

Chhetri was a cut above the rest at school level. 

Sunil Chhetri in action during the AFC Asian Cup Group A match between India and Bahrain at Sharjah Stadium. (Photo: Getty Images)

“He could dribble past several defenders and net the ball,” Dhuliya recalls. 

“I haven’t seen a player like him.” According to Sajwan, facilities at the grassroots in Delhi remain the same as they were 20 years ago. 

“There could be marginal improvement but nothing major changes in terms of playing facilities at school level,” Sajwan added.