CHENNAI: June 12, 2005. Indian football fans would be hard-pressed to recall the significance of the date. It was when Sukhwinder Singh handed a 20-year-old Sunil Chhetri his first India cap. It was against Pakistan in Quetta. Not only did the striker score, he even celebrated it with the home fans! Thirteen years on, Chhetri completed a century of matches, against Kenya in Mumbai on Monday. He is the second Indian to the mark after Bhaichung Bhutia.
Despite age, what stands out is his goals-to-matches ratio. The Delhi lad is third on the list of active goal-scorers on 61 strikes, ahead of Spanish striker David Villa, behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. While people may scoff at the comparison, Chhetri can’t be blamed for making the best of the situations he found himself in. Longevity and urge to deliver when it matters are the hallmark of greats. In recent years, especially after the retirement of Indian football’s first century-maker, Chhetri’s ability to influence games and singlehandedly carry the national team deserves praise. Former defender Gouramangi Singh has seen the 33-year-old’s rise from close quarters.
“I saw him grow up from a promising striker to the main man. His commitment and desire stand out. After all these years, he is still the first to training and last to leave. There are many examples of players taking training lightly after reaching a certain level. Not Sunil. His refusal to give up is an inspiration,” said Gouramangi. Chhetri, who also dons the captain’s armband, has been the pillar India have relied on to book a fourth AFC Asian Cup. Gouramangi says the Bengaluru FC striker leads by example and has an interesting tale to substantiate his claim.
“We all used to go out for dinner after matches. The next day is mainly for recovery and rest. But we used to see Sunil at it again, burning those extra calories. Soon, we would also join in. When you see him put in such effort, it rubs on players around him. He deserves all the accolades that have come his way.” Despite the ISL’s popularity, the national team has not managed to find the same support. And the second Indian to have played abroad in recent times made a plea to fans on social media to turn up in large numbers. IM Vijayan, who is in Mumbai to catch India in action at the Intercontinental Cup, added that only Chhetri is capable of this. He also believes Chhetri is the perfect role model for kids.
“His feet have always been on the ground. There are no airs about him. His passion and desire are infectious. He deserves all the glory that has come his way. Hopefully, he can inspire the national team to greater heights.” Reaching landmark in style Chhetri scored twice as India beat Kenya 3-0 at a packed and rain-soaked Mumbai Football Arena to reach the Intercontinental Cup final.