AIFF announce Sunil Chhetri as the Player of the Year

Blue Tigers legend and captain, Sunil Chhetri has won the ‘AIFF Men’s Footballer of the Year 2018-19’ award after another glittering and hugely successful 2018-19 season. This is the sixth time that the Bengaluru FC forward has clinched the coveted award, breaking his own record of five triumphs which came in 2017, 2014, 2013, 2011 and 2007.

The 34-year-old enjoyed probably one the best seasons of his career in the 2018-19 term. He was magnificent for both club and country, smashing records and scoring goals while showing immaculate consistency and second-to-none work ethic. Chhetri’s incredible approach to the game was inspirational for fellow players in both camps, which made the job of the coaches that bit easier.

The new Indian national team head coach Igor Stimac had recognized that from the off and counted on the forward to keep the dressing room in order. While speaking about Chhetri, he said, “Sunil is very valuable to our team. He is a role model to these young players who are knocking on the door. He has played so many games, he is so experienced, and has scored so many goals.”

Chhetri started the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2018-19 campaign with a bang, finding the back of the net in just the second match against Jamshedpur FC. That was immediately followed by a quick-fire brace away to FC Pune City, where some of his play on the day was quite extraordinary to watch. The forward’s next goal would come again on the road, this time at the home of the mighty Kerala Blasters.

By the end of November, the Blues led by Chhetri looked in a league of their own, giving away nothing and tearing defences apart. The skipper grabbed the winner against Goa, but a concerning dry spell followed just before the start of India’s 2019 AFC Asian Cup run.

The nation was entering the tournament after a long wait and Chhetri was expected to be the torchbearer of the relatively inexperienced squad. A lack of goals in the month leading up to it was a major worry, but like every champion player, the Blue Tigers skipper didn’t let the pressure get to him, as he led India out against Thailand in the opening encounter.

Half an hour into the fixture and the fears and concerns regarding Chhetri’s dry spell in front of goal vanished. He gave the Blue Tigers the lead from the penalty spot at the 27th minute and doubled that tally a minute into the second half. India won the match – their first in the tournament since 1964, while Chhetri, courtesy of his double, overtook Argentine great and FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi to become the second-highest active international goal-scorer with 67 strikes to his name.

The Blue Tigers though were unable to progress into the next round despite the best efforts of their skipper. Returning to club duty soon after, the Blues skipper scored the equalizer at home to the Blasters, earning Bengaluru a valuable point. The floodgates were now open and Chhetri continued banging in the goals, whether in victory or defeat.

Bengaluru qualified for the semifinals and their skipper got on the scoresheet in the second leg against the Highlanders, ensuring that the Blues reached their second final in as many years. In the final, the Gaurs stifled Chhetri and offered him very little space to work with. He, however, did his part in defensive situations and completed the entirety of 120 minutes, which was important as coach Carles Cuadrat needed a leader to rally his troops when the going got tough.

The 34-year-old deservedly stepped forward to collect the trophy – his first Hero ISL title. Overall, his numbers were the best any Indian could offer in the league, with his nine goals from 19 matches, highest among Indian players. Chhetri also had three assists to his name, while completing 586 passes. Teammate and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu hailed Chhetri, after the match, as a true legend of the sport in the country. “He’s a legend forever for both the club and the country. I envy him and I learn a lot from him. All I want to do is play with him and learn as much as I can,” he stated.

In head coach Stimac’s first match in charge of the team against Curacao at the 2019 King’s Cup, Chhetri earned his 108th cap for the country, putting himself ahead of legend Bhaichung Bhutia as India’s most capped player. The forward scored India’s only goal in that match, his 68th for the country.

Even after achieving such feats, Chhetri remains humble and played down his achievements, stating instead that he was more interested in helping the younger players. “I had a dream but never dreamt of playing 100 international matches. This is unbelievable. Honestly, I never think much about milestones.”

He continued: “I always try to be a good example. I have understood that lectures don’t work. If I go up to Udanta (Singh) and say to him about the importance of being on time, the importance of hitting the gym, maybe he will not take me seriously. Instead, I try to do it for myself so that the boys can follow. That’s so satisfying.”

In the Blue Tigers’ 2019 Hero Intercontinental Cup opener against Tajikistan, Chhetri again proved why he is a class above everyone else, scoring twice in the first half. Albeit it wasn’t enough to earn India victory. They now face a tricky route if they wish to qualify for the final on July 19 and thus need the stellar striker to display his A-game in the remaining two matches.

Two months down the line, however, stands Chhetri’s biggest challenge. The FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifiers have been a distant dream for many a million Indian fans, with all of them looking up to the Blues skipper to lead them through it.

But for now, it's time to celebrate the 'Captain. Leader. Legend.'

To know was adjudged as the AIFF Emerging Player of the Year, click here.

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