Yours faithfully, Sunil Chhetri: The reliable, versatile talisman leads Indian football from the front

Nothing about the run, the acrobatics or the goal suggested Sunil Chhetri will turn 38 in two months.

Sprinting towards the goal, eyes following the ball, arms outstretched and right leg extended, Chhetri met the diagonal cross from free-kick mid-air. Then, in one motion, he cushioned it down, opened his body, slotted it past the Hong Kong goalkeeper with the left foot and, in a rare goal celebration, sealed it with a kiss to the thousands at the stands.

A couple of days earlier, when India seemed to have run out of ideas against Afghanistan, Chhetri lined up a free-kick from roughly 25 yards out with about five minutes left to play. He wrapped his right boot around the ball, which looked like it was headed well wide of the target but curled in sharply to find the top corner of the goal.

Days before, against Cambodia in the opening match of the Asian Cup qualifiers, six players – including the goalkeeper – stood between two Indian attackers, one of them being Chhetri, and the goal when Brandon Fernandes whipped in a cross from the left. Chhetri, who had already scored one from a first-half penalty, snuck behind the defenders to head home the ball.

On Tuesday, India sealed their back-to-back Asian Cup berths for the first time ever. However, this was about Chhetri, like it always is when the national team is involved. ‘What would India be without Chhetri’ is probably a question/statement that floods the metaverse almost every time the team plays. It captures both India’s plight without its talisman and the awe that Chhetri inspires with his ridiculous levels of reliability.

Take away his goals and one shudders to think where the national team would’ve been in world football. Since the time he made his debut, on June 12, 2005, Chhetri has scored almost a third of India’s goals.

Would the national team have qualified for the Asian Cups in 2011, 2019 and 2023 without his strikes? Or won the SAFF Championships so frequently? Who knows, perhaps they would’ve succumbed to more embarrassing defeats if not for his numerous rescue acts.

Of course, the argument can be made that someone else would’ve taken Chhetri’s place if not for him. But it’s also true that no player from this generation has come close to matching his goal-scoring prowess, consistency or longevity – 84 goals in 129 matches against 31 different opponents over 17 years is a testimony to that.

Looking at Chhetri’s career merely through numbers, however, does not do justice to the man and all that he’s done for Indian football. And there’s very little he hasn’t done: he’s changed the mindset by chucking aside the semi-pro culture and embracing professionalism to a level that one hadn’t seen before; he, with his heartfelt pleas, has got bums on seats when the national team plays; and then takes it upon himself to make sure those fans are entertained.

As former Bengaluru FC manager Carles Cuadrat says, Chhetri is ‘a treasure, a kind of special gemstone for Indian football.’ “What makes Sunil special is his position on the pitch,” Cuadrat tells The Indian Express from Barcelona.

“A lot of players who perform well for such a long time are central defenders or defensive players, not wingers or fullbacks because they have to run a lot. Also, not forwards because they have to keep scoring always. In Sunil’s case, what makes it more special is that he is performing as a striker and is the top scorer of any team plays for, India or Bengaluru.”

‘Boring lifestyle’

The secret, Chhetri’s first captain Shanmugam Venkatesh, a former India international and assistant coach, says, is in the sacrifices he has made. “He challenges himself every day,” Venkatesh says. During the qualifiers in Qatar recently, Venkatesh and Chhetri were relaxing in the lounge when Chhetri developed a craving. He smiled at me and said, ‘Venky bhai, chai-samosa khane ka mann kar raha hai. Someday…’” Venkatesh recalls.

“When I played, I could eat biryani on the eve of the match. My body could handle that. But Sunil doesn’t party, doesn’t eat junk, sleeps early, wakes up early, works out every day, doesn’t miss training… a boring lifestyle for a normal person but that’s the reason he has been able to play so consistently for 17 years.”

It’s a lifestyle he’s followed for years at Bengaluru FC. There are no cheat days, even during the off-season, when Chhetri does not skip training. During the season, on match days, he is one of the first to reach the club and heads straight to the massage room where he lies down on his chest and immerses himself in videos of Messi as the masseur does his thing.

“Like Rafa Nadal, who arranges his bottles meticulously during a match, Sunil has many tiny rituals. But he isn’t obsessed by it or doesn’t overdo anything,” Cuadrat says. Venkatesh adds: “He reads, understands and does what is right. And he does it every day, not just on the day of the match or the day after. That’s why he can score goals as he scored against Hong Kong the other day.”

Multiple roles

Chhetri, of course, is more than the sum total of his goals. He can assist, play second-fiddle and put in a defensive shift if the situation demands, especially when donning Bengaluru’s blue jersey. Cuadrat gives the example of Bengaluru’s ISL game against Hyderabad, which was played weeks before the pandemic struck.

The game-plan, the Spaniard says, was that when his team would earn their first corner on the right, the ball would be crossed at the top of the penalty box towards Chhetri. He would make a decoy run so that Nishu Kumar, a left-back, could run in behind him from the midfield and take a shot.

“Sunil is usually our target man in these situations. He is very good with the header and very good at shooting… so it’s obvious that he is one of our targets. The opponents, too, are watching and marking him closely because he is the main threat,” he says. “We were talking to Sunil, and he said it was tough but we should try.”

In the seventh minute, Bengaluru earned a corner on the right. Midfielder Dimas Delgado sent a signal to his teammates and then counted to three; that was the moment the runs had to be initiated. “Sunil was the last player at the edge of the penalty box to run inside, and everyone was looking at him, waiting for his move,” Cuadrat says.

Chhetri made a dash inside the box and distracted the defenders to create space for Nishu, the unlikeliest of goalscorers, who came charging in from behind to smash from the corner from the edge of the box. After the goal, Sunil did not go to the players to celebrate. Instead, he came to the bench to honor us, honor the idea and capacity we had as a team to create something where he wasn’t the protagonist but played a secondary role. It says a lot about him; that he is always thinking for the good of the team.”

During the season Bengaluru became champions, Cuadrat says it was Chhetri’s defensive work, while playing as a left-winger, which came in handier. “When we were defending, we had a 4-1-4-1 system. Miku was taking care of central defenders and the rest of the team was in defence. We were very compact, there were no passing lines for the opponents. Sunil and Udanta’s (Singh) defensive work on the wings let us have a strong defensive system,” Cuadrat says.

“Now, with age, if he isn’t good enough for press, you can use him as number 10. He can be used in different offensive positions – as number 10, number 9, winger…”

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The national team, perhaps, does not have that liberty given that there are few goal-scoring players. Manvir Singh and Ishan Pandita have shown promise but will have to prove consistency. In such a scenario, the who-after-Chhetri question will not die down so easily. The man himself, however, continues to defy age.


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