Cap’TON’ Fantastic: He came, he saw and he’s still conquering
He invited the fans and he ensured he put up a show. He bared his heart out and he saw the nation respond. For thirteen years he donned the national shirt with pride and when he walked out to take charge in his 100th international game, the stadium reverberated with just one name - ‘Chhetri, Chhetri’. This one is for the ‘Captain. Leader. Legend.’ - Sunil Chhetri.
Who knew a man who picked up a bat and a pad as a young child and dreamt of playing cricket for India, would go on to rewrite history books, shatter records and emerge as one of India’s most celebrated sporting stars in a completely different ‘ball’ game. It is definitely nothing else but destiny and sheer hard work which made thousands flock to the Mumbai Football Arena on a certain June 4 to celebrate him - a legend who would be donning the Indian football team jersey for the 100th time and singing the National Anthem with a passion unparalleled.
The only player after the legendary Bhaichung Bhutia to make 100 international appearances for the national side, Chhetri has demolished records left, right, centre. While he is India’s leading goal-scorer to date with 61 goals to his name, his achievements don’t stop then and there. He sits third in the list of most international goals scored by active players and is bettered only by arguably two of the greatest footballers of all time - Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (81) and Argentina’s Lionel Messi (64).
The journey has obviously not been easy for the legend, but it’s his grit and determination that has ensured he remains at the top of his game season after season. Starting his professional club career with a giant club like Mohun Bagan, who had enough faith in the 18-year old wunderkind to sign him on board proves that he was chiselled for greatness. As his journey through the club level started and his talent received the recognition it duly deserved, Chhetri earned his first call-up in the Indian national squad at the age of 20.
When asked if he remembers his debut game against Pakistan in 2005, he vividly could recollect every emotion he felt. “I still remember my first match for India. We were in Pakistan and Nabi-da (Syed Rahim Nabi) and I were the rookies. We were kind of chilling knowing that we may not be fielded. But Sukhi-sir (Sukhwinder Singh) asked both of us to start the game. I scored a goal and in all that euphoria ran to the Pakistani fans and started to celebrate,” the 33-year-old shared. It may have been an embarrassing moment for the star, but one can very well imagine the myriads of emotions the kid must have felt to score his first goal for the country.
Just three years later in 2008, Chhetri would go on to score his first international hat-trick against Tajikistan, further going on to add two more match balls to his name, with the most recent one coming against Chinese Taipei in the Hero Intercontinental Cup. By 2011, the then 27-year-old had crossed the 50-match mark while playing against Malaysia. However, the most notable achievement of the year 2011 would be India’s qualification to the AFC Asian Cup after more than two decades. Indian football’s growth story was on the rise and India had got a magical player to applaud and bank upon in the form of Chhetri.
It’s 2018 and after a gap of eight years, India have again managed to secure a berth in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. Chhetri is expected to lead the team out in the prestigious tournament, preparations for which has already started from the inaugural four-nation Hero Intercontinental Cup organised by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in Mumbai. In his 100th match against Kenya, Chhetri did not disappoint the fans yet again, as he scored a brace to see the team through, just a couple of days after his incredible hattrick had drowned Chinese Taipei.
When he was asked how it felt to achieve the milestone, the legend in his signature modesty had said, “I had a dream but never dreamt of playing 100 international matches. This is unbelievable.” The enormity of the achievement probably seeping under the calm and resolute exterior he is known to flaunt both on and off the field. A man who has seen both the best and worst of Indian football, he does believe that they are “on the right path” and that the desire and camaraderie in the present squad are special.
In a country where cricket is worshipped, this man has emerged as a shining beacon of the game of football, urging youngsters on, inspiring thousands to take up the game and holding India’s tri-colour high on the international stage. The journey ahead for Indian football will be strenuous, but with Chhetri leading the pack, hope for resurgence has never been any brighter.
Here to many more milestones and accolades in the future for our captain. May he go on to play a 100 more and immortalise his contribution to ‘the beautiful game’.