Exploring Sunil Chhetri through the eyes of his national team strike partners

Bhaichung Bhutia, Balwant Singh, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Robin Singh, Farukh Choudhary, Manvir Singh - the list, non-exhaustive at best, represents a few of Sunil Chhetri's strike partners while representing India. In his career representing the Blue Tigers, the 35-year-old has shared the responsibility of leading India's frontline with several colleagues, friends and peers - the likes of whom have spanned different generations. To further stress on the last point, Chhetri's first-ever partner when spearheading the Blue Tigers' attack was Bhaichung Bhutia, who is currently 42, while the youngest is Farukh Choudhary, who turned 23 just a few days back.

With Chhetri due to complete 15 years of international service in just over six months, we take a look at the captain, leader and legend's grand legacy through the eyes of his national team strike partners – both past and present.

Bhaichung Bhutia

Essentially considered as the ideological predecessor to Chhetri, Bhutia is an Indian icon in his own right and an inspiration, and mentor to Chhetri himself. The Sikkimese sniper was the first-ever strike partner Chhetri played with in the national team and Bhutia oversaw a young Chhetri's growth from 2005 to 2011.

Speaking about his impressions of Chhetri from when he first broke into the Blue Tigers squad to the way he established himself as the ever-present talisman he is now, Bhutia said, "Sunil was surely the best strike partner I had. Our understanding of each other was very natural and it was so great and fun to play with him. He has matured as a player and been very, very professional over the years. He really took care of his body and fitness and always aimed at getting better every single day."

Robin Singh

Known to be a close friend of Chhetri's, the Delhi born player has had the experience of partnering Chhetri both at the international and club level, while with Bengaluru FC.

Recounting his experience of playing with the talisman, Robin stated, "Playing with Sunil, both for club and country, has been amazing. We were quite lethal together. Us understanding each other helped us play the way we did. We both keep it simple when we play together and that’s been helpful. Hopefully in the future, I’ll be able to do it again."

Accentuating on what sets Chhetri apart from the rest, the 29-year-old Hyderabad FC striker opined, "Sunil has a lot of commitment, both for club and country. His dedication and his love for the game is special. He loves the game and he loves scoring goals. And he is Sunil Chhetri. He is an accumulation of a number of things and he does them the best. That’s why he is who he is."

Jeje Lalpekhlua

The Mizo sniper has been, perhaps, the longest-serving partner Chhetri has had on the international stage, with the two having turned out together in the India jersey on several occasions since Jeje made his debut. Reminiscing about his debut and first experience of playing with Sunil bhai, the 28-year-old stated, "I remember playing my first game for India in 2012, alongside Sunil bhai. I think it was his first match as India captain, and if I remember right it was an AFC Asian Cup qualifier. From then on, we have built a great understanding with each other. If I'm not wrong, my first goal for India was assisted by Sunil bhai."

"Whenever we have played together, the understanding between us has been great. He is a senior player; I have learned a lot from him on and off the pitch. I am lucky to have played alongside him, shared the dressing room and the pitch with him. I hope it continues in the future, in the years to come. He is an incredibly important player for the national team, and we hope he continues playing for many more years," he added.

The Chennaiyin FC man went on to underline what it means for a young up and coming striker to learn and grow under Chhetri's invaluable guidance. "Sunil bhai has helped a lot of up and coming players including strikers settle into the team. He did that with me as well. Him, along with other senior players, made it easy. International football is different from what many have faced at the club or junior level. Sunil bhai shares his experiences and always provides sound advice. Sometimes everyone will just sit together and share and discuss things. He has always been helpful, on and off the field. He also provides sound advice on other aspects like what to eat, what not to eat, how players should behave themselves, etc."

Manvir Singh

Belonging to the latest generation of Indian strikers, the 24-year-old has just started breaking into the national team and the opportunity to hone his skills playing alongside Chhetri has greatly benefitted him.

As per the FC Goa man's own admission, "It has always been a great feeling playing alongside Sunil Chhetri. He has been nothing short of a mentor to us and guides us every time. He always shares his experience with us. Right from diets to the game, he has always been someone who helps us to get things right."

Farukh Choudhary

Like Manvir, Farukh Choudhary, too, is a recent addition to the national setup and for the Jamshedpur FC forward, the opportunity to play alongside Chhetri donning the India colours has been a dream come true. "When I was not a part of the national team, I used to think that one day I will represent my country and play alongside him. He is a legend for the country and has scored so many goals. It’s an honour to play alongside him."

Expanding on his experience with the national team so far, the 23-year-old remarked, "He has been really helpful, on and off the field because whenever you make a mistake, he is there as a mentor, to guide you as a senior player. Whenever you interact with him, he is always there to guide you. If anyone needs advice, he is very helpful because he has a lot of experience. The main thing which I have learnt from him is to always stay focused. His composure on the ball, the hunger he has to still give his best at this age - as youngsters, we look up to him for this reason."

Sunil Chhetri

The overwhelming appreciation, however, isn't one-sided. Citing how much each of his strike partners have helped him grow into the player he is today, Chhetri said, "The journey has been a privileged one as playing for your country for so many years is super special. Along with that, the opportunity to play with so many different striking partners. That has taught me a lot and definitely helped me be a better player. I try my best to combine with my strike partner, as the understanding and camaraderie are essential for a good result."

While explaining how his role has evolved through the years, the 35-year-old added, "When I was the younger partner, Bhaichung da used to help and guide me a lot, taking almost all the pressure off me. Now, in my own little way, I try to do that with the younger lads so that they can perform as freely as possible."

Pushed to pick a favourite from his national team striking peers, Chhetri said, "That’s not fair and also a very difficult question. I have been fortunate to play with so many talented strike partners. Bhai (Bhaichung) would always be special as we played lots of games together, he was my role model and a special player. My combination with Jeje has also been great, I have enjoyed that a lot too. We combine well and he understands me well and vice versa."

Like Bhaichung passed the baton on to Chhetri, there has been a lot of speculation on whether there's someone waiting in the wings to take the mantle from India’s all-time leading scorer when the time does come. Giving his own take on the debate, the 2019 Padma Shri winner concluded, "There are many young front players who are doing well, right from the senior team to the under-16 and I am quite certain that we will have strikers who will do really well for India in future."

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