When we hear the word Sunil Chhetri, only 3 words come to our mind- Captain Leader Legend. And the words absolutely fit him, for what he has done to Indian football, it’s simply miraculous. It’s something that has never been done by an Indian player ever before and it would take something really special to be surpassed.
Well, Sunil Chhetri is not just one of India’s finest ever footballers but certainly one of the best goalscorers the world has ever seen. Well, that’s quite an unpopular opinion but this guy right here is the 10th highest International Goalscorer ever in the history of the game. And believe me, that’s no mean feat. Ask a certain Lionel Messi about the pressure of playing for your country and one will get the answer. And our very own Sunil Chhetri has more goals that the magical, the mercurial Lionel Messi. But the journey from a young boy playing on the streets of Delhi to the 2nd highest active goalscorer in International football hasn’t been so easy either. Let’s take a look at the journey of Sunil Chhetri, which made him the player, the Legend, that he is today.
STARTING OFF WITH THE KOLKATA GIANTS- MOHUN BAGAN
Ever heard of the Lionel Messi paper napkin story? And how he signed his first ever contract with Barcelona on a napkin? Well, our very own legend has a story quite as remarkable if not more. At just 17 years of age, Sunil appeared for his first ever trials. And the club where he appeared for trials was not any other small club. It was Mohun Bagan, one of the oldest clubs in the history of the game. And everyone knows the pressure of playing for Mohun Bagan. Playing at just 17 years of age is even more remarkable. Well, Sunil had appeared for the trials and was expecting a call to to the junior teams of Mohun Bagan. When the club told him to give his dad a call, he was surprised as they offered him a 3 year senior team contact. Sunil says-” I COULD HAVE NEVER EXPECTED IT IN THE WILDEST OF MY DREAMS. HERE’S A 17 YEAR OLD KID GETTING SIGNED UP BY A CLUB AS BIG AS MOHUN BAGAN, THAT TOO IN THE SENIOR TEAM. IT FELT LIKE A DREAM.” And thus, his Footballing journey started off as a dream, a dream that he’s been living every moment of even 15 years since the day he signed his first ever contract.
But the journey was never going to be easy. Standing at just 5 feet 7 inches, everyone was sceptical about him. If you are a short winger, it’s adjustable but a striker standing at just 1.70 metres is a sight you will find in very few teams all around the globe. And thus, it was even tougher for Sunil Chhetri to carve a niche for himself. His first ever coach at Mohun Bagan, Subrata Bhattacharya had to say the following about his first impression of Sunil:
“It was a fateful morning some 17 years ago when I walked into the Mohun Bagan ground where a bunch of young players had gathered for club trials. It was a common feature as the club always wanted to Catch ‘em young.“
“And from a distance when I looked at them, the gathered lot seemed no different from the so many trials that I had attended as a coach. When you are assessing young footballers — perhaps once in a lifetime, a player would come along to lift your heart. I probably did not feel that way that morning.”
“He had good pace, and his shooting was more than decent. What really struck me was the desire he showed. At first sight, from the perspective of a tall defender like myself, his diminutive figure did not evoke any thoughts that he would be able to get on the goal.“
“But he showed an excellent reading of the game. He constantly made runs off the ball, barking at his teammates to pass the ball to him. He was just five-foot-seven, but whenever there was a set-piece, he’d stick himself right into the towering defenders.“
“That really showed the most important thing a coach looks for in a player – hunger,” said Bhattacharyya, who is now Chhetri’s father-in-law.‘
Thus, its clear from the above words that how tough it would have been for a 17 year old short guy to reach where he has reached today. After all, how many top strikers have you seen who are as short as 5’7 in nature. Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski? Well, all of them are all well above six feet and unless you are someone extra-terrestrial like Lionel Messi, it’s almost impossible to attain success as a striker being that short. So, Sunil Chhetri has set a new benchmark for all other footballers out there, a benchmark which says that if one has the hunger and desire in him to make it big, no shortcoming can ever make you fall short of your target. So, we should always look forward towards new challenges and never got bogged down, come what may.
And the same spirit has been followed by Sunil Chhetri all through his career. His initial years at Mohun Bagan were never quite as good as one would expect a Legend to have. Scoring 8 goals in 18 matches in his first 3 years as a professional, Sunil never got the instant breakthrough that a certain Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo got at their clubs. Sunil had to compete for a starting berth with another Legend of Indian Football in the form of Baichung Bhutia and Baichung was in the very prime of his career. And thus, Sunil moved on to his next destination in search of greener pastures.
THE BREAKTHROUGH AT JCT
In 2005, after 3 years in Kolkata, Chhetri signed for JCT in Punjab. And his time with JCT can be described as the breakthrough years of Sunil Chhetri. He learnt his trade at JCT and became the Footballer that we all know today. He played a lot of games in his three seasons with the club and scored a total of of 21 goals in 48 matches for the Punjab based outfit.
STARTING OFF WITH A BANG IN THE INTERNATIONAL ARENA
Chhetri’s time at JCT coincided with his International debut. He made his debut for India against Pakistan and scored in his very first game for the country. Well, the celebration after that goal is a part of folklore and something which we better not go onto here. Or else, we could be discussing about it for hours. It was in the 2007 Nehru Cup where Chhetri’s International Career kicked off truly as he scored 4 goals in the tournament and was India’s leading goal scorer. His strikes included those against Cambodia, Syria and Kyrgyzstan as Sunil helped India bag the Nehru Cup after a long stretch of not winning any trophies. For his performances in the year 2007 for both club and country, Chhetri was honoured with the AIFF PLAYER OF THE YEAR for the very first time, an honour that he would go on to bag atleast 5 more times in his career.
THE TIME AT EAST BENGAL AND THE WINNING THE AFC CHALLENGE CUP
By this time, Sunil Chhetri had already started attracting interest from numerous clubs abroad, but he signed with East Bengal in the summer of 2008. Although his stint in the Kolkata Maidans lasted for just an year, he managed to score 11 goals in 18 games for the club. On the International front, Chhetri continued his rich vein of form as he amassed 8 goals in 13 games that year. It included winning the AFC Challenge Cup in which he scored 4 goals and was awarded the MOST VALUABLE PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT. Chettri scored the first of his three hat-tricks so far in the final of the tournament against Tajikistan as he helped India qualify for the Afc Asian Cup, 2011 after 17 years of exile from the tournament.
DEMPO AND THE FAILURE TO GET A WORK PERMIT
After a year long stint with the Kolkata Giants, Chhetri signed a 2 year deal with Goan side Dempo FC with a clause in his contract which would allow him to leave for trials abroad in the future if he wanted to.
On 7th August, 2009 it was reported that Scottish Premier League side Celtic were linked with a move to sign Chhetri. The Scottish club had watched Chhetri during a pre-season friendly with Santboia, a Segunda Division side, in a pre-season fixture. The club were really impressed by Chhetri and were interested in signing him. But on 30th August, what came out was a news that was blissful to everyone’s eyes. Chhetri had signed a three year deal with Premier League side Queens Park Rangers. The news spread like wildfire and each and every Indian Football fan was seen celebrating. For it’s not everyday that an Indian footballer signs a deal with a Premier League club. But the joy was short-lived. Chhetri was denied a work permit by the English FA and had to return back to Indian shores, dejected. But being the positive person that he is, Chhetri said- “ IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. I WILL STILL CONTINUE TO WORK HARD FOR MY COUNTRY AND MY CLUB DEMPO, WHO HAVE BEEN VERY SUPPORTIVE.”
During his time with Dempo, Chhetri managed 8 goals in 13 I-League appearances and won his first ever trophy at club level.
THE MOVE TO KANSAS CITY WIZARDS
In March 2010, it was announced that Chhetri was on trials with Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer and that he had played during their pre-season games. Sunil scored 11 goals in 5 games in the pre-season and impressed one and all with his abilities. He was formally signed by the club on 24 March 2010 and thus became just the third Indian player to play outside of South Asia and the first Indian to play in the MLS. Peter Vermes, the head coach of the Wizards, was quoted as saying “One thing we really like about Sunil is that he’s a crafty player. Technically he’s very sharp, and he’s a guy that has good attacking tendencies.”
PLAYING AGAINST MANCHESTER UNITED
Then came THAT GAME against Manchester United. Sunil came on as a substitute in the 69th minute and played the rest of the game. His dribble against Paul Scholes was a thing of beauty and there’s not 1 Indian fan who hasn’t seen that clip. Although he couldn’t make the net bulge, he had a good couple of shots at goal and eventually it was the Kansas City Wizards who came out of the game victorious, as they won 2-1 against Manchester United.
But Sunil’s time at the MLS Club can be best termed as unfortunate as he had to cut short his stint with the club as he was summoned for National Duty. The National Camp was to be held for the Asian Cup, 2011 and Sunil had no choice but to be a part of it. Thus, another fine opportunity was left reeling and Sunil had to return back to Indian shores.