Sunil Chhetri will make his 100th appearance for India when he enters the field today in Mumbai.
June 12, 2005.
Indian football team travels to Pakistan to participate in National Bank Football Cup. It is the first match of the series, and Sunil Chhetri is not sure whether he will make his debut. Sukhwinder Singh, the-then coach of the Indian side, announces the team on the match-day.
Chhetri starts as the striker.
In the 63rd minute of the game, a Pakistani defender tackles hard into Sunil Chhetri’s shins. The Indian footballer is treated on the pitch. He refuses to go out, even as he limps. Two minutes later, he dribbles past Pakistan’s player Abdul Hakkim, spins around the defender, takes the rebound and scores his first goal for India.
He then celebrates in front of Pakistan fans, thinking they were Indians.
In the small confines of Indian football, Sunil Chhetri is a hero.
He is one of the few Indian footballers who has played in Europe and America. He has garnered interest from clubs like Leeds United and Celtic in the past. He almost signed for Queens Park Rangers. But this is hardly the reason for his grand stature in Indian football.
He is a hero because the story of Indian football is a story of struggles. A story of disappointments. A story of failures. A story of mediocrity. A story of seclusion.
And whenever the times are bad, when hopes diminish, we look at our saviour. The hero.
And that hero is Sunil Chhetri.
Chhetri’s story of his debut match mirrors his career. He has never learnt to give up. Throughout his career, he changed numerous clubs. For a certain period of time, he changed clubs every year. He became the only third player from the subcontinent to play abroad in MLS. Then he went to play in Portugal. Both of his outings resulted in big failures.
Queens Park Rangers expressed interest in signing him in 2010. The negotiations were almost done, the three-year contract was in place. But the British Government denied him a work permit because India was not among the top-70 countries in FIFA rankings. “It’s not the end of the world. I will still continue to work hard for my country,” Chhetri said later.
And he remained true to his words. He continued to work hard for his country. Today, he plays his 100th match for India, scoring 59 goals, only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in most-goals scored among active international players. Sunil Chhetri has now become an inspiration to millions of Indian kids who want to play football today.
In 2013, Sunil Chhetri signed for Bengaluru FC. A club which was established the very same year. It was a critical moment in Chhetri’s career. He played for clubs with history – Mohun Bagan, JCT, East Bengal and Dempo to name a few. Signing for a club just a few months old was a massive decision, especially considering that Chhetri was 29. A prime for a forward.
“I’m used to taking burdens,” Chhetri said at that time.
It’s been five years since. Sunil Chhetri is still at Bengaluru FC.
Yes, his stints with Mumbai FC in the Indian Super League might have punctured his Wikipedia career chart, but this is the longest time Chhetri has ever spent in succession at a single football club. He was a wayfarer in Indian football who found a home in the most unlikely of places.
Sunil Chhetri was central to Bengaluru FC’s success. The club won two I-League titles in 2013-14 and 2016-17. The forward led the Bengaluru side as they became the first Indian club to play in an AFC Cup final.
The Bengaluru FC faithful sang “We’ve got Chhetri, Sunil Chhetri, I just don’t think you understand!”
He led the football culture. He spread the football culture.
A man who has his roots in the North-East, was born in Secunderabad, started his career in Delhi, played for two biggest Indian clubs in Kolkata, led a South Indian side to a continental cup final.
Sunil Chhetri has played key roles in India’s triumphs in Nehru Cup, SAFF Championships and AFC Challenge Cup. He scored 8 goals, and led Indian team as the Blues qualified for Asia Cup 2019.
For context, India has appeared in the tournament only thrice in its history.
He’s 33, but age doesn’t seem to have an impact on his fervour. He scored a hattrick against Chinese Taipei last week in Mumbai, and is set to make his 100th appearance for the national side.
On Saturday, he posted a video across social platforms, pleading the people to support the national side. He urged them to be a part of discussions, to “abuse” and “criticise” them. His message created a huge impact across the country.
The attendance for the first match in Mumbai against Chinese Taipei was 2,500 out of the maximum 20,000. India plays their second match today against Kenya.
The stadium is sold out.
The skinny, 5’5 Indian forward stands tall amidst the doom and gloom of Indian football. He’s no longer a traveller. He’s a torchbearer. An inspiration.