It’s June 2005 and India is about to play an away game versus their arch-rivals Pakistan. The main striker of India is injured. He’s replaced by a short, young player named Sunil Chhetri. He is about to make his debut for India in this heated rivalry. As he walks onto the pitch in the national stadium of Pakistan, the crowd goes nuts. But then, in the 65th minute, Sunil Chhetri receives the ball in the penalty area and shoots it past the Pakistani goalkeeper.
He scores a goal for India during his debut, versus Pakistan. He runs towards the crowd to celebrate but he immediately turns back around when he only sees angry and disappointed Pakistani fans. That goal was the special beginning of a very special international career. Seventeen years later Sunil Chhetri has become an absolute legend in Indian football with 80 International goals like Lionel Messi and only trailing Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s the captain of the nation representing 1.4 billion people.
Sunil Chhetri is 37 years old now and he is nearing the end of his career as a professional football player. It was bound to happen that he will play football from his birth in Secunderabad in 1984. Sunil’s father was in the Indian Army and he played for the army team, while Chhetri’s mother played for the Nepali women’s team.
So growing up football was in his blood so he started playing from a young age. Due to his father being in the army, his family had to frequently move to new bases and Sunil feels that really helped him in his professional career as got accustomed to new places, new cultures, traditions, and food. Interacting with various people from his childhood helped him when he went to play abroad.
“My mom and dad are proper sports fans, especially football. They always encouraged me to express myself and be active, healthy and inculcate sports in our curriculum. Respecting everyone and being disciplined was mandatory in my household. Other than that, I and my sister were allowed to do whatever we wanted to. Now when I think about it I had possibly the best childhood I could have ever imagined.”
“It happened very suddenly. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would become a professional footballer. I was raised in an army background, so we had ample opportunities to play different sports. It helped me in improving my muscular coordination. Then I started playing for a local amateur club called City Club (based in Delhi). I represented the team in the Durand Cup which is the 2nd oldest tournament in the world after FC Cup.
“In that tournament, Mohun Bagan AC which is one of the biggest giants of Indian football spotted me and got in touch with me. They wanted me to come to Kolkata. When I got the news I thought they were calling me for the academy trials which was still beyond my expectations. I went there and they saw me for a week and then offered me my first professional contract.”
“Becoming a professional footballer was not as difficult as I had planned, it happened suddenly. But my struggles started after that. It’s one thing to get a contract and the other to sustain your place in the team and understand what it really takes.”
On his struggles to become a professional football player
“There were many. To start with, I never had formal education about football and its integrity things. So I had to learn it the hard way. It’s one thing when you are playing in a local club for two months in Delhi and from there going to the biggest club in the country was a massive leap for me.
“I recall a moment when we were playing an away game which we were supposed to win, but we lost it. We were abused and spat on, stones were thrown at the dressing room and we couldn’t leave it even four hours after the game ended. I was just seventeen and a half then, I was petrified and called my father and said this is not for me, it’s cruel and I can’t sustain it. He came from Delhi to Kolkata to calm me down and give me a different perspective. He told me the reason why I started playing football. It took some time but I decided to stay although it wasn’t easy there.”
“The high and the lows in Mohun Bagan during the first year were brutal. When we were winning we were the heroes of the city, but when we were losing we were abused and battered. It was crazy but I think it was great first learning for me. It really shaped me, I was able to see the worst and the best in the first year itself.”
On his national team debut against arch-rivals Pakistan
“It was a magical moment of my life. I will probably never ever forget that first day at my debut when I played for my national team for the first time. We played Pakistan in their country in a place called Balochistan. It’s one of the most important days of my life. It’s everyone’s dream to represent their country. I did not know if I would start the game. I think a couple of senior players had minor niggles. Our coach Sukhwinder Singh called me and my mate Syed Rahim Nabi on the morning of the game and he said ‘both the seniors are out and you will get your first start’ when I heard the news, I was very happy and excited. That’s how I made my International debut.”
“I was so excited after scoring my first goal for India, that I went on and celebrated in front of the fans and there was pin-drop silence despite the stadium being jam-packed. When I looked back I saw none of my teammates came to celebrate with me. It was hilarious. After the game ended I asked them why they didn’t come, they said: “Nah, we were not interested”. I was young and wasn’t much matured back then and I was celebrating. I jumped over the fence and looked around and nobody was smiling. But for me, it was a moment of utmost joy and pride.”
On the feeling of representing a populous and diverse country like India
“It’s amazing. I have never sat down and thought the magnitude of it. Whenever I do I feel immensely honored. The one thing I do is I don’t take it for granted. I know it’s my responsibility and also it’s heavy and hard work. I enjoy every bit of it and I give everything I have got. Life is not too difficult for me, because all I have to do is play to the best of my abilities. So I keep it as simple as that, and I don’t think about what people expect from me.”
On the abroad stints at Kansas City Wizards and Sporting Club de Portugal
“Kansas is very American. It’s right in the middle. It was a good experience. It taught me a lot not only as a player but also as a human being. It’s not easy when you have to cross 2 continents and go there and live in completely different time zones. I think if I can change one thing from that experience is probably have some family member or a friend there with me because it was very difficult to stay alone there. I was doing all right there as a footballer, but not having anyone around me was really difficult.”
“The next thing that I had was Sporting Lisbon where I really enjoyed it a little bit more. I was more mature, I was playing well and training well. I have no shame and regrets that I couldn’t make the first eleven in eight months. I played just five games there and that too coming on from the bench. Big players like Eric Dier, and Bruno Fernandes were all there in that team when I was playing there. So that was a happier stint even though I didn’t play many games but I learned a lot from there. At that time I wasn’t getting any younger so after nine months I decided to return to India although I had a four years contract with the club. My decision to return to India was completely based on getting more playing time. Both my stints taught me a lot. It wasn’t easy but I learned how to face the difficult challenges in life when you leave your comfort zone and go out and try to do something.”
On the Impact of foreign players and coaches in the development of Indian football
“They all have had a positive impact. When you have talented people who are a level higher than what we are used to in the country then the level of training and competition improves. So that is one of the things that ISL has done, are we can bring more talented people into the country. It has helped in raising the quality of the matches, the league, and the players in general. The difference in quality before ISL to now is quite visible now. I feel ISL has been one of the biggest blessings to Indian Football.”
On the role of football in Indian society and the fans
“Indian football as a general has improved a lot in the last 20 years. This is my 19th year as a professional footballer and I have seen a huge jump in a positive manner. A lot of corporates have come in and shown interest to invest and be part of the development. The government is doing a little bit, the federation is working really hard. The fans are turning up and the media is also helping.
“There is no dirt of passion as far as the fans are concerned. Premier League and the UEFA Champions League are the most-watched leagues and people here stay awake at night to watch the games. So understanding and desire to follow football is definitely not the problem in the country. Slowly the interest is also coming to the local leagues here, which is a blessing.”
On the mental preparation and fitness ahead of the games
“I read a lot, I am comfortable with grasping things that are better. I try and seek things that I can learn, whether it is while reading a book or watching an amazing athlete, or knowing what’s happening around the world. I think it really helps because it widens our capability and the way our brain can grasp. Initially, when I thought this is how it’s going to work, it never does. We really have to keep looking for different answers.
“We have to keep trying to make ourselves better in life. Especially in my profession because everyone who is playing with me and against me is improving every day. So if I am stagnant and don’t find different ways we won’t sustain. The amount we sleep, our diet, making sure we have meditation in our daily routine and try to be humble in life. That’s the way it has worked for me.”
On the life after professional football.
“I haven’t thought about that seriously. Probably I am too greedy playing right now. I don’t know when it’s going to end, but I am enjoying playing football and I am at the best of my health. But maybe I will take a break from the sport, it’s been a long time around 20 years. For so time single-mindedly focusing on things has taken a toll on me, so I will probably relax and go to various places or write a book or keep myself engaged with something. So, in short, I don’t exactly know what I will do but one thing is for sure I will take some time off and take rest and care of my body.”
Thanks to Sunil Chhetri’s brilliant performances in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, that India qualified for the upcoming edition of the AFC Asian Cup. Sunil was also the top goalscorer in the Asian Cup Qualifiers round 3 stages as he scored 4 goals and was well ahead of AS Roma and Uzbekistan striker Eldor Shomurodov (with 3 goals) and several others. Sunil also matched the international goal tally of former Hungary and Real Madrid Legend Ferenc Puskas with his strike in the last game against Hong Kong.
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