38-years-old. 92 international goals. 142 matches for India.

These are just the numbers that define the dazzling Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri. Beyond his excellence on the pitch, the famed Bengaluru FC player has charmed the nation — young and old alike — with his personality and longevity in the Indian football.

From making his debut by replacing an injured Bhaichung Bhutia against Pakistan in 2005 to finding himself in the driving seat of the Indian football team in 2023, the striker has carved his own trajectory that is near impossible to emulate by anyone else.

“At that time, I did not know that I was going to play for 22 years. I am fortunate that I am surrounded by amazing individuals who have helped me reach where I have reached. It is not only my family and close friends but also my teammates. It might sound cliche, but the doctors and coaches with whom I have been associated have helped me play for all these years,” Chhetri revealed in an interview with Sportstar.

To achieve such a marvellous feat is an extraordinary achievement for any ordinary footballer. But for the striker, it is his proficiency in maintaining his lifestyle in parallel with his devotion for football, who aims of going strong even at 38.

There have been many days when I thought I would not be able to take the field, but the doctors and physiotherapists did a magic trick to ensure I could reach the pitch. To play for a long period, I must be taken care of individually. I cannot alone take on the onus of playing for more than two decades; it is all of us together,” he added.

The greatest of football players face the test of time, and not everyone is able to maintain their game at the same level – physically and mentally, both. Even after crossing 30, Chhetri showed no intention of stopping, more so because he systematised himself into a lifestyle that made him desire more on the pitch and succeed his said objectives and targets.

A Padma Shri and Arjuna awardee, Chhetri’s contribution to the growth of Indian football has been irreproachable. Having started out with his professional career as early as 2002, the forward has been witness to different eras of football and has played a quintessential role in bringing the Indian football team on the global stage.

From National Football League to Hero I-League to Hero ISL to the AFC Cup, Chhetri has been at the forefront of the changing dynamics of Indian football. More so, his exploits have been acknowledged throughout the nation, which has helped nurture several youth programs, proper club academy structures, scouting players, grassroots, and much more. 

Right from Ashique Kuruniyan to Jeakson Singh, there have been numerous instances of players emerging from youth academies benefitting the Indian national football team and the Indian football fraternity at large. Having been an observer of youth talents making it to Bengaluru FC’s first team, Chhetri advocates clubs to invest in youth development and feels it is imperative for them to start working on it right away.

“The first advantage is that you do not have to go out and spend too much money on players, and the second is that you get loyalty, which you cannot buy. Roshan, who has come from the academy, has a different loyalty when he plays for Bengaluru FC. It is like ‘The Class of ‘92’ of Manchester United or the likes of Xavi [Hernandez], Andres Iniesta, [Lionel] Messi, and [Sergio] Busquets batch [of La Masia Academy]. These are the big benefits of having an academy, and I hope the Hero ISL and I-League clubs are working towards realising them. If they are not doing it, then I am sure they will do it soon, as that is a big part of getting home-grown talents,” he said.

The striker stands third in the list of highest active list of international goalscorers, having struck the back of the net 92 times, right below Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Time and again, Chhetri has shown his prowess by coming clutch on several different occasions, be it in the recently held SAFF Championships or the AFC Asian Cup.

A clinical goalscorer, the responsibility of scoring goals has indirectly fallen onto the shoulders of the striker. Rightfully so, in the swansong of his career, the question has arisen numerous times of ‘Who after Chhetri?’ While it is too early to answer that question, the man himself wants the nation to keep their hopes up for an even better goalscorer. 

“Did anyone predict the existence of Sunil Chhetri when names like IM Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia were playing? I know many talents in the country can do better than Sunil Chhetri. I am in a position where I can see it happening, and secondly, it is very important for you all to hope for that, or else the future will be bleak. When we are aiming to break into the top-10 teams in Asia, we will need players who are better than Sunil Chhetri,” he expressed.

“We need the national team to get even better to match the best on the continent, and we should aim for that mark. We once dropped to a ranking of 173 and then gradually recovered to make a substantial jump to the stage where we are now. We have remained between the rankings of 17 and 19 in Asia. Now we have to get within the top 10 and then cement our position there. For that, we need a team that can do better than this one, which I think has laid the foundation for the future,” he added.

“This is how the evolution of the Indian football team should be set in place. Our task is to ensure that we do not regress as a team, and for that to happen, people like me, [Anirudh] Thapa, and Sandesh [Jhingan] will keep working to the best of our abilities. It does not matter whether Sunil Chhetri has scored 92 international goals. What matters is the improvement of the national team,” he concluded.