In terms of fan following, Sunil Chhetri is arguably the most popular player in the Indian men’s senior football team. A legend of Indian football, Chhetri has won plenty of titles with both club and country. With India playing the SAFF Championship 2023 final against Kuwait on Tuesday, he is close to adding another trophy to his illustrious career.

However, despite all his achievements as a player, Chhetri’s popularity goes beyond the pitch as well. At present, the 38-year-old has nearly 5.2 million followers on Instagram and a following of 1.7 million on Twitter. Chhetri’s fan following transcends age and genders, with the Indian captain boasting plenty of admirers not only in India, but outside the country as well.

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But while Chhetri may be one of the most popular figures in the sports fraternity, he revealed his struggles on approaching people as a fan himself. During the first part of his interview as part of the In The Stands show hosted by Suyash Upadhyaya, Chhetri dwelled deep into how at times he finds it tough to walk up to personalities that he admires.

“I'm a fan of a lot of people, and not every time I get the strength to go up to them and say that I am a big fan of yours. So for everyone who tries to do that to me, I try to reciprocate in a very nice manner even though sometimes it gets a lot..” he stated.

Speaking further on, the Indian striker stated how he admires renowned sports personalities such as boxing legend Mary Kom, Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra, Indian cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar and Indian football team legend IM Vijayan, besides actor Amitabh Bachchan, to name a few. He recalled instances where he fell short of words to express himself while meeting these celebrities.

He said: “I don’t know why (I am not able to express myself in front of someone I admire). I try. I can't point. Few of the times, I am able to do it. Whenever I meet Mary Kom di, she will know that a fan has come to meet her. I have met Neeraj Chopra after the historic (Olympic gold). He knows that, but he is sweet and reciprocates the same feeling. When I met Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan, at that time, of course I was a little bit hesitant at first, but then I did accumulate the strength to go up to him and tell him that I am a big fan when my wife was there.”

“The first time I met Tendulkar, I felt hesitant. We were both invited as chief guests at a football tournament. He was being very nice but I was being a little bit (hesitant). It’s not often that I fall short of words, but I was a little bit hesitant to tell exactly what a big deal he is for me and for the whole country. So like these moments I've caught myself being a little hesitant.. IM Vijayan is one of them. I was a little bit starstruck when I met him for the first time.”

It’s no surprise that Chhetri shares a close bond with former Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli. The duo were previously spotted together in April where Chhetri paid a visit to the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru ahead of Royal Challengers Bangalore’s (RCB) match against Mumbai Indians. Chhetri was seen not only interacting with players from the RCB squad, but also practising with them and taking part in different activities.

On many instances, both Chhetri and Kohli have expressed their admiration for each other on social media. Opening up on the friendship between the two, Chhetri mentioned how the duo keep in touch with each other despite and share meaningful conversations irrespective of their busy schedules.

Chhetri said: “We talk about normal, stupid, (something that) doesn’t make (sense), meme kind of things. We share a lot of laughter and jokes. I'm not sure if he will be happy if I am disclosing this, but we chat a lot of funny stuff. Having said that, some of the most deep and meaningful chats I have had is with him. We are not chuddy buddies. It’s not that we talk 24x7 everyday. There are phases where we don't talk for months,”

He further added: “The best part is that he understands and I do. But we catch up from where exactly we last spoke. And the few times where I have felt the heat of being who I am and to perform and where he has felt the heat of who he is and to perform, is where exactly we have chatted (about). We understand that no one else would understand what we both were going through and it just hits the right note. And that's one of the best chats that I've had because you know that the other person understands exactly what you are going through.”

Watch the first part of the In the Stands with Chhetri below: