Over and beyond: How Sunil Chhetri became the cornerstone of Indian football

Picture courtesy: AFC Media

In football, like any other sport, talent, commitment and a passion to succeed are the pre-requisites for greatness. But to become the torch bearer for the beautiful game in a nation of one billion strong takes something truly special. It requires an unbridled desire to take one's country to the next stage - a quality which perhaps no one embodies better than Sunil Chhetri.

Over the years, the Indian national football team has had its fair share of stars, but Chhetri's contribution towards the growth of the sport in the country has been unparalleled. Since making his debut more than a decade back, the charismatic striker has been the focal point of a footballing revolution in the country.

Age no bar

Currently India's top scorer in the international stage, the 34-year-old striker has nothing more to prove on the personal front, but it seems the talisman is far from done. At a time where crossing the 30-year threshold seems to point towards a lesser role in a football team, Chhetri continues to spearhead the attack for club and country with the grace of a veteran and the ferocity of a 20-year-old.

Much like vintage wine, Chhetri seems to be getting better and better every year and it won't be a gambit to assume that the best is yet to come. In his own words, "I love playing football and playing for my country drives me to push further. I think I am undergoing the phase when I'm the fastest, fittest in my life. I don't think age is a barrier for me."

A leader who goes over and beyond

The Hero Intercontinental Cup in June 2018 saw Chhetri at his very best as the striker finished as the top scorer en route to helping the Blue Tigers win the prestigious title. However, it was Chhetri’s ability to inspire a nation that really stood out during the showpiece event. His heartfelt message to the country’s football fans to support the team after the match against Chinese Taipei received a rousing reaction and helped usher in a new era of Indian football when it comes to fan engagement.

Bengaluru's talisman

However, it's not just the international arena in which Chhetri has excelled. Bengaluru FC’s immediate impact on the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) was no coincidence. The Blues finished top of the league in their very first campaign with Chhetri in the vanguard. Scoring 14 times, the marksman finished as the top-scoring Indian of Hero ISL 2017-18. Despite losing out to Chennaiyin FC in the final, the Bengaluru-based side, led by Chhetri, left a lasting impression on every Hero ISL fan with their scintillating displays on the pitch.

The Blues are unbeaten so far in the first half of the Hero ISL 2018-19 and the 34-year-old has played a huge part in it. Chhetri has already hit the back of the net on five occasions and is the leading Indian scorer in the league.

Nurturing the future

Picture courtesy: AFC Media

Another big contribution of Chhetri has been his impact on the youngsters as a teacher and role model. The likes of Rahul Bheke, Anirudh Thapa, Ashique Kuruniyan, and many more have benefitted immensely due to the guidance and leadership of Chhetri, with the biggest example being Udanta Singh. The ace striker's role in the rise of his Bengaluru teammate Udanta to the highest echelons of Indian football is irrefutable. Under Chhetri's guidance, the Manipur-born winger has had a meteoric rise, not only in the Bengaluru ranks but in the national team as well. The 22-year-old has made the right-wing position his own for club and country. Udanta recently played a vital role in the Blue Tigers’ historic 4-1 win over Thailand in the first match of the AFC Asian Cup 2019.

Team first, records later

The very same match also saw Chhetri score two goals and surge ahead of the great Lionel Messi to become the second highest active goal scorer in international football. Chhetri currently has 67 strikes to his name while Messi has 65. Only Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more goals (85) among the currently active players.

Despite the plaudits and international recognition the achievement brought forth, Chhetri's focus remains unfaltering - success for the team. Asked about his record after the Thailand match, he said, "I don't think anything about personal achievements at the moment. It's all about the team and we need to focus on keeping a clean sheet against UAE. No record for me now. After 10 years, probably, when we'll sit with a drink in our hand will talk about records."

It's not really hard to see why the no. 11 is often referred to as Mr Football in India.

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