How playing with mom growing up moulded the competitor in Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri's talent is beyond reproach. The 35-year-old Bengaluru FC ace has always been technically gifted, hardworking, fit as a fiddle - essentially equipped with every quality a top footballer needs to succeed.

But there's always been something more to India's captain, leader, legend, which has, for decades, set him a league above his peers in Indian football, essentially earning him the aforementioned title.

While there maybe varied observations among fans and pundits on what that fineprints of that particular differential is, virtually everyone would agree with the broad strokes - the defining quality sprouts from his competitive nature. Chhetri's desire to work harder, run faster, think quicker, tackle harder to achieve the 'win' on the field and off it has been a part of the Indian football folklore for sometime now.

So, when or where exactly did Chhetri's insatiable drive for victory take root?

As per the Blue Tigers' all-time highest goal scorer's own admission, it was at home, playing a variety of games and sports with his mother which moulded his competitive nature and love for sports at a very young age. "Sports was in my system was as early as I can remember. I used to play a lot of different sports, now when I look back, I understand that it really helped with my hand-eye coordination. My biggest competitor was my mum. I used to try to beat her at Chinese checkers, chess, carrom, volleyball, badminton, football, wrestling," Chhetri revealed in a latest interview with indiansuperleague.com.

"Sometimes I also worked hard trying to avoid her slapping me and all those things," he quipped.

It was not just his mother though. "My father worked in the Army and wasn’t home often because he was posted here there and everywhere. Whenever he was back, we were three. My sister is the non-sporty one in our family. She was the one who never liked playing sports that much. But, the other three of us, we were always engaged in some sport or the other. I am so thankful that I’ve got a set of parents who were so much into sports," he added.

Runs in the family…

The fact that a sporting culture, particularly football, ran deep in the Chhetri household was another big advantage for him growing up.

"My mum played for the Nepal national team. My father used to play for the battalion, electronics, and mechanical engineer corps. So, getting sports into my system was not difficult. It was natural," he noted.

"Beyond sports, I think the best teaching my parents imparted was to do exactly what I wanted to do. I think being disciplined and respecting everyone was paramount and necessary in our family. Apart from that, we were allowed to just express and do whatever we wanted to, which in return helped us. Nothing was forced. It doesn’t matter what you wanted to do but to make sure you did it whole-heartedly was important.

"Now that I think about it, I think it was so profound but then I thought it was normal. None of the other friends had this luxury at home. So yeah, thank you mom and dad. That was beautiful," he added.

The impact of family in the dawn of his professional journey

Chhetri's first official professional contract was with Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan at a tender age of 17. Shouldering the burden of expectations associated with Kolkata football is no mean feat and has often seen experienced players buckle under the pressure. For Chhetri, then only a teenager, it was a big challenge to overcome but continuous support from his family during the phase helped him ride it through and come out the other end stronger.

"The first year was good. I used to get 20 minutes or 30 minutes gametime in matches and people used to tag me next Bhaichung Bhutia and what not. But football in Kolkata teaches you very quickly. The crowd turns hostile when you start losing and there were times I used to cry. Losing isn't an option in Kolkata. It's not easy, a lot of players even quit. There were instances which shook me and I even called my father back home once and said that I don't think I should do this. But thank God I didn't quit. My family supported me a lot and my father flew in to stay with me from time to time. We talked and it made things easier. The story continued and 18 years on, here I am," he reminisced.

Staying grounded

Since his time with the Green and Maroons, Chhetri's stock skyrocketed with fans often calling him the next Bhaichung - a humongous tag to carry for a young footballer back then. With his national team debut coming up in 2005, the buzz just got louder. For a young Chhetri, it was paramount to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground during the period.

Explaining how his upbringing and closed ones helped him to exactly that, Chhetri revealed, "I never took it (the comparisons) seriously. I had a kind of surrounding, my friends, my family who always told me the truth and that continues till now, so there was no chance that I was going to get carried away by all those kind and amazing things people said, there was no truth to it."

The family in Blue

Explaining how the seniors in the team too guarded him against the unnecessary pressure, he added, "There was no comparison whatsoever and thankfully Bhaichung bhai was in my team at that time. People like Bhaichung, Mahesh Gawli, Deepak Mondal, Renedy Singh, Samir Naik, Surkumar Singh, Climax Lawrence were in the national team back then and they were brilliant. They guarded me and protected me so much."

"But they never interfered with my freedom. Everyone wanted me to score. And the 70 odd goals that I have scored for the national team, came about because of this. Since the first time when I played against Pakistan in Pakistan on my debut to now, everyone in the team wants me to score. That is one of the reasons why I score as many goals as I have scored," Chhetri opined about the impact of his family in Blue on his career.

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