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Sunil Chhetri: The backbencher and prankster who will finish on top

May 16, 2024 17:07 IST

IMAGE: Sunil Chhetri will drop curtains on his illustrious career on June 6 at the Salt Lake Stadium when India take on Kuwait. Photographs: Ibraheem Al Omari/Reuters

Football was not very close to Sunil Chhetri's heart during his days as a bubbly teenager with proclivity for pranks. He was only looking to use the sport as a vehicle to gain entry to a reputed college and continue his education.

Coming from a family with a background in football, Chhetri was not aware that he was destined for greater things in the beautiful game, but his army-man father Kharga Chhetri had an inkling.


As Chhetri senior nursed a dream to see his son become a professional footballer and achieve what he couldn't, Chhetri's career started to take shape in the national capital as he represented City Club Delhi from 2001-02.

Then came the big break as Indian club football heavyweights Mohun Bagan, enamoured by his skills with the ball, signed him in 2002.

The rest, as they say, is history that deserves to be revisited on a day he declared that he would call time on his glorious, two-decade international career after the World Cup qualifying match against Kuwait next month.

The end to his international career as the country's most-capped (150 matches) and most productive (94 goals) would be fittingly at Indian football's spiritual home, Kolkata.

He stayed at the city's famed Maidan till 2005 and scored eight goals in 18 matches for Mohun Bagan, paving the way for his entry into the Indian U-20 side and then to the senior national team.

And while he was delighted at the developments, Kharga was anxious when Sunil left for the fortified Pakistani town of Quetta for his international debut way back in 2005.

Thoughts of how his son would fare in the match crossed his mind but Chhetri senior was more worried about the security arrangements in place for the Indian team in the Balochistan province. At 20, he was still the baby of the family.

While he expressed his concerns over phone, Sunil calmed his father with the assurance that they were being looked after well by the organisers.

A little more than 19 years later, Kharga was relieved again, this time after his son had achieved everything he had to in the sport, fulfilling all of his dreams which he carried while crisscrossing the country with his family while serving the Indian Army.

During those days of frequently moving from one place to another, Chhetri senior was hopeful that his son would one day make it big in football, despite the lack of passion that is required to become a professional footballer.

What boosted Kharga's belief was that Sunil, with his skills, was excelling in football for every school he played.

Born in Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh on August 3, 1984, football ran in Sunil's family as his father represented the Indian Army and his mother, Sushila, played for the Nepal's national team along with her twin sisters.

Heartbeat of Indian football

While he remained a prankster and a "backbencher" even after cementing his place in the Indian team, things changed for Chhetri when he was handed the captain's armband by then head coach Bob Houghton after Bhaichung Bhutia's retirement from international football following the Asian Cup in 2011.

His role was not restricted to finding the back of the net anymore.

Despite increasing expectations and the pressure to deliver every time he took to the field, Chhetri performed his job with aplomb, often without enough support from his colleagues in top international tournaments such as the Asian Cup, AFC Challenge Cup, the World Cup Qualifiers and the friendlies.

While he had people like Bhutia to help him in the early part of his India career, Chhetri has mostly been on his own since the departure of the 'Sikkimese Sniper' from the scene.

There is no doubt a few talented players emerged in the intervening years but they were no Sunil Chhetri, no Bhaichung Bhutia.

For more than a decade, Chhetri’s fortunes have been synonymous with those of the national team.

"The day I was given the armband, it was in Malaysia by Bob Houghton, there was an instant pressure because of what I was — a backbencher," Sunil had said last year.

"Myself, Steven (Dias) and (NP) Pradeep made fun of the senior players, that was me. Everything was a prank and I was mischievous.

"But when I wore the armband, for the initial three-four games I started sitting ahead.

"That was me taking the pressure that I have become captain now. It's not these things but doing the right stuff that you were doing before and being a little more thoughtful. It's not only you, it's the team now," he had said.

Despite his enormous responsibility on the field, Chhetri thrived the longest in an ecosystem that was not the ideal thanks to the never-ending administrative apathy in Indian football.

From FIFA suspension, allegations of sexual harassment by its office-bearers and coaches, to rampant corruption and factionalism, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has seen it all.

And Sunil also saw them while giving it his all on the field.

To extend his international career in the absence of an able successor, Chhetri had turned vegan on the advice of his good friend, Virat Kohli, whose sport enjoys unprecedented popularity in this part of the world.

But, by donning the blue jersey and the orange armband, and by the finding the back of the net with consummate ease for nearly two decades, Chhetri often succeeded in forcing the cricket-crazy nation to switch its focus to football.

Kohli, and his other superstar cricket colleagues, know it too well and acknowledge it too. Well, this also aptly sums up the man's contribution.

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