India’s pride, Sunil Chhetri celebrates 16 years in international football

India skipper Sunil Chhetri on Saturday celebrates 16 years in international football. On June 12, 2005, it was the first time that the forward donned the Indian jersey to take on neighbours Pakistan in Quetta, and -- guess what! –  he went on to score on his debut in a 1-1 draw. It’s been a heck of a journey since. Today, only two active international male footballers have scored more goals than him, and these two are Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and United Arab Emirates’ Ali Mabkhout. In a commemorative interview, the 36-year-old, who last week scored a brace to take India to a 2-0 win against Bangladesh in the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers and his tally to 74 goals, shed light on what is well and truly a remarkable odyssey for him in India colours.

“It’s been amazing. To play for the number of years for the National Team, to represent the country the number of times I have, it's been outstanding. It is beyond a dream.

“It’s a wonderful journey, that would not have been possible without my family, friends, my close group, the players I've played with, the coaches I’ve trained under, the physios, the doctors – and I say this because all of them are equally important for whatever I’ve achieved,” Chhetri told the AIFF Media Team.

Chhetri also turned the clock back to his childhood in Delhi. “A lot of Army kids will relate to this. My father was away a lot, so when he came back, it was like a festival. But most of the time, me and my sister would spend time with my mum. A lot of things that we have learnt, the way we have been brought up, it's all because of my mum.

“And if I have to tell you one particular memory, it would be my mum coming with me to the field, because I complained that nobody wants to come and play with me in the heat of the Delhi summer. Around 3-4 pm in the summer, it's impossible for people to come out. There’d be loo [heatwave] blowing outside, and it's not easy. So, one day I was complaining that I had nobody to play with, and my mum came with me to play.

“For the whole 10-15 days of summer vacation, I used to play foot tennis with my mum, and that was amazing. At that time, I thought that it was normal. But when I look back, I realise that it's not. She didn’t want me to not do or not enjoy something just because I didn’t have friends. And it's not just once. Playing volleyball or football with my mum was common,” he fondly recalled.

Chhetri has proved to be a worthy successor to Bhaichung Bhutia, and he admitted that the former India captain influenced him in a big way early in his career. “Oh, I learnt a lot from him …For Bhaichung-da, one thing that I loved about him is how down-to-earth he really was. We all knew who he was – he was our captain, the main guy. But he was so approachable, and he made efforts to come and talk to each one of us. I still remember, our group used to talk to us, share his experiences, tell us where we are going wrong – not just on the field, but off the field too.

“We were very well-nourished as far as our seniors were concerned, especially with Bhaichung-da. All of them were very kind and helpful. They did tell us when we were wrong and told us in a very harsh way. They had different ways of dealing with us, but all of them taught us so much. There’s nobody better than Bhaichung-da,” he said.

Talking about his on-field learning from Bhutia, Chhetri said: “That man was relentless in the way he approached a game. His mentality was bulletproof. He was at it, every game. The first challenge, the first tackle was always Bhaichung-da. The one to fight for lost causes was always Bhaichung-da. And when as a senior you saw that our captain, the most senior guy was working so hard, it rubbed off on us.

“There were so many times we weren't that good, but we still got to the end was because of the perseverance that Bhaichung-da got to the team. I keep telling all the number 9s that I meet about Bhaichung-da. I don’t think that I’ve met anyone as dedicated and as hungry as him.”

In an exceptionally long career, Chhetri has been bestowed with many honours, be it the Arjuna Award or the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award. When asked what accolade he is targeting next, Chhetri, modest that he is, said: “These are things that I've never planned about. When I got there, I was really thankful and honoured. What is important to me is the game against Afghanistan [on June 15], and then 10 days of rest, before I join my club [Bengaluru FC] again for the AFC Cup. That’s it, that’s how far my attention span goes. I am unable to think beyond. And that’s probably why my life is a little bit easier.

“I don’t think long term, because it phases out. That’s how it works for me. The next game is Afghanistan, then take 10 days off, and then hopefully get ready for the AFC Cup.”

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