Celebrating Sunil Chhetri: 17 occasions the Indian captain was the national team hero in his 17-year career
The Savior, the messiah, India’s best, far ahead of the rest and one of the Asia’s greatest.”
Hero ISL expert and commentator Anant Tyagi just about gathered himself and managed to conjure up words to describe the heroic, almost superhuman exploits of Indian men’s football team captain, Sunil Chhetri when he produced a piece of magic from the deadball at a time when the game was drifting towards a chaotic but most definitely a fruitless end for either teams during India’s third round AFC Asian Cup qualifiers match against Afghanistan at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata on Saturday.
Over the years, commentators and writers alike have found it hard to keep pace with the Indian captain in terms of matching his almost relentless genius on the football pitch with suitable words to even remotely describe his greatness.
On Saturday, his goal felt like a point far beyond reach for those attempting to describe him. He had transcended into a territory where it became almost impossible to find new ways of narrating his heroic acts.
Everytime you feel, that the situation is bad enough for the Indian football team and for it to be beyond even Chhetri to rescue it for them, he goes and does it. It’s probably habitual for him but it always astounds those mortals around him.
As the Indian captain, completes 17 years in the jersey of blue, his achievements gain even more credibility for the sheer longevity of his career that as it stands are showing no signs of coming to an end.
As a tribute to India’s greatest goalscorer on his 17 years of service to the Indian team, here’s a look at 17 occasions when Chhetri has been the team’s hero:
1. India vs Pakistan, 2005: Sunil Chhetri scores on debut
A 20-year-old Chhetri gave an early glimpse of what he was going to be all about in the years to come when he scored India’s equaliser to help them rescue a 1-1 draw against arch-rivals Pakistan in Quetta. It was his debut for the Indian national team and many such rescue acts were to follow
2. India vs Myanmar, 2008 AFC Challenge Cup semi-final
After a goalless group phase of the all-important AFC Challenge Cup in 2008, Chhetri found his magic touch when it was needed the most. With the semi-final locked at 0-0 against Myanmar, Chhetri gave India the breakthrough and a place in the final, keeping their dream of qualifying for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup alive.
3. India vs Tajikistan, 2008 AFC Challenge Cup final
After being India’s hero in the semi-final, Chhetri took it up a notch in the final scoring a hat-trick to blow Tajikistan away and give India a memorable victory. His treble helped India end their long wait for AFC Asian Cup qualification.
✅ Qualified for @afcasiancup 2011— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) August 13, 2020
✅ @chetrisunil11's first int'l hat-trick
✅ A 4-1 win in the final#OnThisDay 12 years ago, the #BlueTigers 🐯 defeated Tajikistan 🇹🇯 in New Delhi to lift the AFC Challenge Cup 2008! 🏆#IndianFootball ⚽ #BackTheBlue 💙 #ThrowbackThursday 🔙 pic.twitter.com/O04Xf5q3e0
4. India vs Vietnam, 2010 International friendly
The forward proved his hat-trick in the AFC Challenge Cup final two years before was no flash in the pan as he netted another treble to sink Myanmar 3-1 in an international friendly in Pune. Chhetri was fast emerging as the heir to Bhaichung Bhutia in Indian colours
5. AFC Asian Cup 2011, Chhetri is India’s shining light
India’s return to Asia’s premier competition wasn’t a memorable one as they lost all three matches in the group stage. But Chhetri was the bright spot for India as he scored two out of India’s three goals in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. The baton of being India’s main man had been passed from Bhutia to Chhetri.
6. India vs Maldives, 2011 SAFF Championship semi-final
India had just been pegged back in the 2011 SAFF CHampionship semi-final by Maldives who equalised in the 60th minute to make it 1-1. With India’s passage to the final far from being guaranteed, Chhetri stepped up with two goals (70’, 90+1’) to break the Maldivian resistance and send India through to the final. He then went on to score India’s opening goal in the final as India romped to a 4-0 success.
7. India vs Cameroon, 2012 Nehru Cup final
Cameroon’s second-string team had come from behind to lead India 2-1 in the 2012 Nehru Cup final and the Blue Tigers were up against it against their fancied opponents. But they had a man who always delivered when it needed. Chhetri scored the equaliser 12 minutes from time to make it 2-2. India then took Cameroon to penalties and beat them in the shootout. Chhetri was there again to score one of the spot kicks.
8. India vs Bangladesh, 2013 SAFF Championship, group stage
The Blue Tigers were facing a prospect of facing their first defeat to neighbours Bangladesh in 14 years when Atiqur Rahman Meshu scored in the 82nd minute for Bangladesh in a 2013 SAFF Championship group stage game. But India had Chhetri who equalised in the fifth minute of stoppage time to preserve India’s record. As things panned out, the goal proved to be the difference in India reaching the semi-final and bowing out of the tournament in the group phase.
9. India vs Nepal, FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff in 2015
India who had been in terrible form and in one of the lowest periods had to face Nepal in a playoff match just to qualify for the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Chhetri lifted the mood as his brace helped India to a 2-0 win in Guawahati and give Stephen Constantine his first win since returning as head coach of India.
10. India vs Afghanistan, 2015 SAFF Championship final
After a poor FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, India were struggling in the SAFF Championship final against Afghanistan and had somehow managed to drag them into extra time in Thiruvananthapuram in the 2015 SAFF Championship final. With India seeking inspiration, Chhetri obliged with a winner in the 101st minute to give India the trophy.
11. India vs Myanmar, Third round of AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in 2017
The Blue Tigers were under pressure to make the expanded AFC Asian Cup in 2019 and their first match of the third round of qualifiers came against Myanmar whom they had not beaten on their own soil since 1953. And just when it seemed that the record may remain intact, Chhetri stuck in the 91st minute to hand India the win and give their Asian Cup push a victorious start.
12. India vs Kyrgyzstan, Third round of AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in 2017
Looking to build on the historic win in Myanmar in the first match, India hosted Kyrgyzstan in Bengaluru. Under the pump for most of the game, the Blue Tigers did well to resist the pressure from Kyrgyzstan allowing Chhetri to weave his magic. He almost ran the length of the field and went past bunch of opponents players before scoring the game’s only goal. India’s Asian dream was very much alive.
13. Intercontinental Cup in 2018: Chhetri completes a century in style
Chhetri marked his 100th appearance for India in style as he scored six goals in the tournament that India won getting the better of Chinese Taipei, Kenya and New Zealand in the process who competed in the tournament. Chhetri who made a plea to the fans to flock the stands before the matches, received overwhelming support from the fans who made it a spectacle in Mumbai by turning up in large numbers. Chhetri repaid it the way he always does: with goals.
14. India vs Thailand, 2019 AFC Asian Cup
With India back in the AFC Asian Cup after eight years, Chhetri made it a memorable evening as he led India to an emphatic 4-1 win over Thailand, the Blue Tigers’ first win in the continental competition after 55 years. The Indian captain scored a brace on a historic evening in Abu Dhabi.
15. India vs Bangladesh, FIFA World Cup qualifiers in 2021
Sunil Chhetri provided saving grace for India in a disappointing FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign as he netted a brace against Bangladesh to give Igor Stimac’s men their only win of the qualifiers. The striker was the difference in a tight encounter.
16. India vs Maldives, 2021 SAFF Championship group stage
India faced Maldives in the final group match of the 2021 SAFF Championship. The game was locked at 1-1 going into half-time and the team’s hopes of topping the group were in the balance. Once again, Chhetri came up with the goods as he scored two second half goals to give India a 3-1 win and the top spot.
17. India vs Cambodia, Third round of AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in 2022
With India the favourites to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup from their group, they faced Cambodia in the first match of the qualifiers under immense pressure. In a game of few chances, it was Chhetri’s clinical streak in front of goal that once again made the difference. In the next game against Afghanistan, he scored an 85th minute free-kick to break the deadlock before Sahal Abdul Samad secured the victory in stoppage time after Afghanistan had grabbed a quickfire equaliser.
There are numerous other occasions where Sunil Chhetri has been India hero. But these 17 special moments (in no particular order) are just a way to pay tribute to one of India’s greatest footballing sons who continues to go strong.