When the Indian football team travelled to Pakistan back in 2005 for a three-match series, Sunil Chhetri was among the youngest members in the Indian squad that made their way to Quetta. At 20, he was yet to make his international debut and wasn’t even fully fit when he made the trip to Pakistan.

However, with Bhaichung Bhutia missing from the squad owing to an injury, India coach Sukhwinder Singh took a bold decision by deciding to hand Chhetri a start in the opening game, which was set to be his debut for the international team.

For someone new to the international stage and to play in an away game against a daunting opposition, it was not an easy call. Singh even recalled having "sleepless nights" before the opening game, with doubts about including Chhetri in the starting eleven. 

"To be honest, Sunil wasn’t in my mind at all. He wasn’t my first option. I looked around and wondered as to who could fill in the vacuum. It was then I thought about him. But I had my doubts,” Singh stated. “He was short, and in front of physically strong defenders at the International level, did he have a chance?,” Singh was quoted as saying by the-aiff.com.

“But I knew him. He played under my coaching in JCT and he had shown promise of what he could do on the field. So, I backed my coaching instincts and put him in. And he didn’t fail me,” the coach maintained.

Making it count

Chhetri repaid Singh’s faith by scoring a goal at the Ayud Stadium in Quetta. After an intriguing opening half, the young forward broke the deadlock soon after the break.

Receiving the ball in the box, Chhetri spun before placing his shot past the keeper with composure. Pakistan eventually hit back with a goal to ensure a draw for both sides as the scoreline ended at 1-1. But for Chhetri, who was struggling with an injury before the opener, it was a debut to remember.

"He was carrying an injury before his debut. However, he was confident in himself that he will complete 90 minutes. We knew he will give it his all,” Former India midfielder Shanmugam Venkatesh said.

“It is easy for anyone to be selfish and play at 50% with an injury. But that was never to happen with Sunil. He didn’t think of anything else but gave his 110% on the field. He never saved himself and played his first match like it was the final match of his career. That set an example,” Venkatesh explained.

Celebrating in front of Pakistani fans

Soon after his goal, Chhetri ran to celebrate in front of the hostile and disappointed Pakistani fans in Quetta. He was not fazed by the opposition nor the occasion. However, Chhetri cut short his celebrations when he noticed that his teammates jokingly decided not to join in.

"I clearly remember the scene after the goal -- it was truly unforgettable. Sunil toh naughty tha hi humesha, par main uss se zyaada tha (Sunil was always naughty but I was a step ahead of him)," Venkatesh recalled.

"He scored on debut and ran towards the depressed Pakistani fans to celebrate. As soon as I saw him run, I told the others to not follow him. When he turned his head and saw that he was alone, he got scared. He ran back and asked with a beaming laugh -- 'Venky bhai yeh aapne karwaya na?' (Venky bhai, you made this happen right?).”

Fast forward to 2023, Chhetri has gone on to become an indispensable member for the Indian football team and one of the greatest to don the national team colours. Still fit and firing at 38, the diminutive forward has netted 87 goals for the national team and has been doing that for 18 years.

A debut to remember

In an interview with Firstpost back in 2020, Chhetri mentioned how his debut against Pakistan was the most standout moment from his international career. One that provided him the belief to keep pushing for more.

"I’m fortunate enough to have a few of them (standout moments) that I can pick from, but if I have to put my finger on one moment, it would be my India team debut against Pakistan. That’s the moment you dream about and it’s also the moment you keep looking back on to draw the courage and motivation to go on," he said.

He further said: “That jersey for that match is still with me and that feeling of representing your nation for the first time was a feeling which can’t be expressed."

As India begin their SAFF Championship 2023 campaign on Wednesday, Chhetri will once again go up against the same opposition he made his international debut against. With the stakes as high like it was in 2005, the Indian football team legend will be eager to do what he does best - scoring goals.