Sunil Chhetri is 38. A little over a month away from being 39. Surely in the twilight of his footballing career. But watching him play for the Indian national team, where he runs like a teenager trying to prove a point, scores goals like a striker in his prime and always tries to improve, you’d think differently. 

Every time you’d feel that we have seen the best of the Indian captain, he surprises you. He has scored in all three matches of the SAFF Championship so far and has netted in his last four matches for the national team. If he scores again in his next match, he will equal his longest goalscoring spree for India. A record that he had set 12 years ago in the 2011 SAFF Championship. 

He is also a goal away from becoming the all-time leading goalscorer in SAFF Championship history and is eight goals shy of a century of international goals which is a feat achieved only by three other male footballers, two of them being Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. 

Chhetri is always quick in expressing gratitude for the career he had and feels he couldn’t have scripted it better if he was offered a chance but there were signs in his days as a school kid that the forward was not ordinary. 

Born to a father employed in the army, Chhetri was part of The Army Public School for his secondary school. Renowned for academics and discipline, being part of the school was perceived as a sign of excellence. 

Chhetri was a big part of the school football team and a proud student of that school, but for the boy who had big football dreams, it wasn’t enough. 

“I am a very proud student from The Army Public School. But we could never make it to the biggest stages of the school tournament. We were either out at the group stages or at the quarter-finals because some of the bigger schools were always dominant,” Chhetri revealed during the first part of his interview as part of the In The Stands show hosted by Suyash Upadhyaya where he tries to explore about the life of footballers beyond the footballing pitch. 

“Then it was a very impromptu decision I took without consulting my parents or anyone. I applied for a transfer certificate from my school. It was a rebellious, stupid decision which I probably don't regret now. I joined Mamta Modern School just so that I could play in bigger tournaments,” he added. 

Even at such a young age, Chhetri had it in him to take a bold step to make progress as a footballer very much against the wish of his well-wishers. 

But a young Chhetri went against the tide, taking the responsibility of a big decision all on his shoulders, just so that he could be exposed to a higher level of football and he could improve. 

It then feels slightly less astonishing that, that kid who took such a brave decision all by himself to switch schools has gone places. With his talent, Chhetri would have always been destined for greatness but thanks to this attitude to always seek improvement, he has become the second-highest goalscoring Asian of all-time. 

But for a young Chhetri, switching schools was not the end but the start of a journey that was only going to get tougher. 

“When I joined the new school, there wasn't much difference if you wanted to study. Of course, there was a big difference in terms of the outlook that people had about TAPS and Mamta Modern School but when I reached I had my back against the wall because I had rebelled against a lot of people,” he mentioned. 

But Chhetri didn’t buckle down under the added pressure, he used it to make himself better. 

“So, I had to make a point to my parents that I could study as well. So I was trying my best to juggle between playing, studying and living alone. Even though I was in Delhi, I didn't stay at home. I took the decision that I want to stay with the Mamta Modern footballers. I stayed at the hostel for two years and my parents weren't too happy about it,” he recalled. 

“I arranged my own uniforms, I made sure that I get the books and that I study. So the whole scenario at that time forced me to not leave any stone unturned. When I started studying and paying more attention, I realised that it isn't so difficult. So looking back, I don't regret,” he added. 

Looking back, the decision to switch schools may or may not have made or broke Chhetri’s career, but the ability to take big decisions, own up to them and in turn improve himself on different fronts were signs that Chhetri was always destined for the long haul. 

He remains the main man for India both as a striker and as a leader and his achievements have put the nation on the global footballing map. Budding footballers may keep a close eye on what he does on the pitch to take a few cues from the great man but they could do well to take inspiration from how hungry was he to improve when he was a school kid of their age.

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