Long Reads

Sunil Chhetri – the Hero of Indian Football

Sunil Chhetri
Image: Facebook/IndianSuperLeague

The Mumbai Football Arena witnessed a unique buzz of unity on the sultry night of 10th of June. While sport in India had seen moments like these before, but there was something that made this extra special. A moment like that was probably never seen before by any Indian alive. For the first time ever for a vast majority of Indians, the people of the country seemed united under a single flag; for a single nation. Not for a fight against a rival country in the warzone or for a game of cricket in the ICC Cricket World Cup, what made this more striking than ever was the footballing intent behind this.

Perhaps, an average, non-Indian football fan cared little about it. But as the Indian fans at the stadium performed a Viking clap that had become the face of Iceland’s rise to prominence as the underdogs in the Euro 2016, the hearts of every Indian skipped a beat on watching it.

It was next to impossible to remember as to when was the last time the country took a break from cricket and united for football at this level. As the hair at the back of their necks rose, many wished they were at the Mumbai Football Arena that day. They wanted to be a part of that Viking clap. They wanted to feel it. India wanted to feel how football was like. How it smells like.

For probably the first time, there seemed to be a connection between the players and the fans who were rejoicing in the stands. The Blue Tigers rallied on the support, relishing the uniqueness of the moment. Perhaps, it was the beginning of a new era in Indian football. Maybe, it was just in need of this fuel to the burning fire for empowering the game. And leading this host of players right from the front was one man. The country’s new hero – Sunil Chhetri.

A lesser known footballing superhero of the beautiful game, Chhetri has almost taken Indian football towards that light at the end of a dark tunnel. He has spearheaded a revolution, bringing back hope into the minds of Indian football faithfuls after decades of disappointment and disconnection with the game. He has become a symbol of Indian football, connecting with the fans and the citizens of the country in the most unique way possible.

Currently plying his trade with Bengaluru FC, Chhetri has made his mark by not being only behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the highest number of goals scored for the national team and by carrying the national side to big moments, it was a video that he posted during the Intercontinental Cup that caught the eyes of many. It didn’t just send social media into a frenzy, it hit the Indian masses right where it had to. It brought out a problem and a solution that has been existing in the country’s population for some time now.

In the video that he posted, Chhetri pleaded to the Indian masses to watch the national team play during the tournament and hope again. He said: “To all of you, who have lost hope or don’t have any hope for Indian football, we request you to come and watch us at the stadium. Abuse but make us feel relevant. I mean it’s not fun to criticise and abuse on the Internet. Come to the stadium, do it on our face, scream at us, shout at us, abuse us, who knows one day we might change you guys, you might start cheering for us.”

As intense the words were, they hit the right chords. For years, people have been favouring cricket over football in India. Cricket is considered a religion, much like how football is treated in Europe and South America. India’s struggles in football have been marked by a lack of interest in the achievements of the national team, no matter how hard they graft. The domination of cricket and the country’s admirable successes in the game have overshadowed everything else to a point where many sportsmen hardly get the attention and support they deserve.

While the other technical and socio-economic reasons are elaborate and diverse, what Chhetri managed to do was not just use himself as a medium to bring football forward, but to unite Indians for football again. The message hit the emotional egos of many of those who were late to realise that India had made it to a final. And that was probably the first time that a footballer had been so vocal about supporting the game and getting behind the national team. Above all, it wasn’t a mere suggestion. It was a plea. Seeing the captain of the national team beg for the people the very country to watch them play made many sympathize and empathize with this 34-year-old. Who better a man for it than someone who has overseen the lows and the forthcoming highs of the game in India.

Perhaps, this goes on to be the turning point for Indian football, handing it the impetus it needs. But Chhetri’s has a story of his own; the turning point of his own life.

Chhetri’s love for football roots from his love for cricket and for sports, in general. Quite the same is the case for any kid who takes birth in India and starts watching a sport. Like an average Indian kid younger than ten years old, Chhetri loved cricket and had dreams of being a cricketer. And despite having an Army father who played football for the army team and a mother and twin sisters who played for the Nepal women’s national side, Chhetri had a special fascination for cricket. Although he loved and was into other games too, cricket had a special place in his heart.

Ask any kid in India, he’ll tell you he wants to become the next Sachin Tendulkar. Cricket has captured the minds of the people to a point where it is a temple of worship; a religion to seek hope and happiness from. The movement spread across the country following India’s success in the 1983 Cricket World Cup. It eclipsed every other game that sportsmen in the country played. And like any other sport, football took a backseat despite the Indian football team having won gold in the Asian Games of 1951 and 1962.

Sunil’s family wasn’t poor, but it wasn’t rich too. With his father in the army, the Chhetri family had to move about the country constantly. From Kolkata, Darjeeling and once also to the Indian capital city of Delhi. Belonging to the lower middle class of society, the family wasn’t the richest. They somehow made their ends meet, but a little Sunil very often couldn’t afford what other children at school could easily buy.

In an interview that Chhetri gave to Bengaluru FC, he admits to cheating from the money his father gave him to buy bus tickets. He says: “My father used to cycle till the bus stop and he used to give me the exact change. And I was a cheat, I sometimes used to keep the money in my pocket and not buy tickets. I used to steal money. I asked my mum, ‘I want 50 bucks’. She said, ‘no chance’. I was so desperate that I stole the 50 bucks.”

This was a point in his life where the burden of playing cricket was close to having a crippling effect on the family’s finances and on Sunil’s possible future cricketing career. The game’s equipment wasn’t something the family could afford, despite Chhetri’s desperate attempts. It was too expensive for the boy to play.

And one day when his mother got to know about his habit of stealing money, Sunil was tied to a chair and was beaten up for 2 hours. Chhetri refers to it as the ‘beating of his life’. But what happened after it changed his life forever- it altered the direction in which it was heading. At that point, no one knew which path would suit him more. For a family like his, the future always seemed uncertain.

His mother went inside a room and started crying. The boy that Chhetri was, he couldn’t understand why she was sobbing when he should be the one crying instead. What his mother told shook Sunil Chhetri to the core. It proved to be the turning point of his life. In the same interview with Bengaluru FC, Sunil says: “After 2 hours, she went to her room and she started crying. Then I got really scared. She held me and she said, ‘I’m so sorry that we can’t fulfil your needs that we’re making a thief out of our son’. And that’s something that really shook me. That’s something that really changed things for me. Then I realised that I cannot act like a mischievous, stupid kid.”

This would go on to change Chhetri’s life forever. He gave up cricket and that paved the way for football. For someone whose father would earn about 8000 rupees a month, affording cricket equipment was next to impossible. Having seen his mother cry for not being able to stand up to his dreams, there seemed no other choice to stick to. It wasn’t just a new chapter of his life’s book. It was a whole new book altogether.

Soon enough, there was a need for Sunil to earn a living for himself. Unlike the other kids of his age who could afford to not work and still live off their parents’ pocket, Sunil’s case was different. He had started to excel in football during this time in Delhi, but it wasn’t the only option for him going forward. He admits that he could have worked at a call centre to earn a living if football didn’t work out. He wanted to use football as a means of getting a job at the National Defense Academy or through it, get admission at one of India’s prime institutions- St.Stephen’s.

He wasn’t expecting much from his football career – he was looking to use it to land a job or pay elsewhere. He played for a local Delhi based club called City FC, but little did he or many know that India’s biggest club – Mohun Bagan, was already looking at him. He was 17 at this point and it was 2002, but this seemed too good to be true.

It didn’t take long for the Kolkata based outfit to call Chhetri over for a trial. For someone like him, it was the stuff of dreams. That was probably the first time that the young Sunil saw Mohun Bagan legends Jose Ramirez Barreto and Bhaichung Bhutia up close. Barreto was in his first spell at the Kolkata based side, while Bhutia had just joined up from his stint at Bury in England.

Then came news that was more of a surprise than the invitation for training. Bagan had offered him a contract and had called his father over from Delhi. His surprise and joy of sharing a tent at the club with one of Indian football’s gems – Shyam Thapa, was later overshadowed by the moment when Bagan offered Sunil a three-year contract of 90,000 rupees.

While it probably was more money than he had thought of, Sunil knew that it wasn’t the end of anything. As the great late Sir Matt Busby once said: “it wasn’t the end. It was only just the beginning”.

It’s easy to forget that Sunil was only 17 at this time and was considered a star in the making. But his stint at Bagan did not pan out as expected. He did score four goals in his first season but scored two each in the next two seasons.

Bagan had barely managed to keep their National Football League status during Sunil’s last two seasons – finishing ninth and eighth. But Chhetri thought it was time to move on and play more than he was at Bagan. Game time, for any young and developing player, is crucial to improving and getting better with each game.

The next club in the would-be journeyman’s club would be Punjab’s JCT. And during this time, Chhetri had earned himself a call-up to the Indian senior national side. While the debut had come in November 2004 against arch-rivals Pakistan in the SAF games, Chhetri scored his first goal for the Blues against Pakistan in a friendly in June, 2005.

That was a dream come true. The Delhi boy had never really dreamt of achieving anything like it. But there he was, catching the nation’s eyes.

In his second season at JCT, Chhetri burst into life. In the 2006-07 campaign, he was the top scoring Indian in the league as he found the back of the net 12 times in the league and 21 times in all competitions.

This had come after a below par first season, but Chhetri’s goals helped JCT finish second in the league. And the striker was named the League’s Player of the Year and the Best Forward. Perhaps, the AIFF Player of the Year 2007 award was the most prominent of all.

This wasn’t a coming of age by any means. This was a rise to prominence. He wasn’t only the future of Indian football. He was the present and the future combined. He was being seen as the man who would bridge the gap between the Bhaichung Bhutia era and the one that would follow. And comparisons with Bhutia were inevitable because of their ties with JCT.

And that became clear when India won the Nehru Cup in 2007, as Chhetri finished the tournament as the side’s highest goalscorer with four goals. This was the then 22-year-old’s first major tournament since having made his debut for the senior side three years prior. His time had well and truly come.

During the inaugural season of the I-League, Chhetri came up with similar heroics for JCT. The side finished third and Chhetri grabbed seven goals. He was three goals behind Bhutia and seven behind the club’s top scorer for that season in Eduardo da Silva Escobar. This was where Chhetri learned how to graft. It was far detached from the footballing cauldrons from Kolkata, but it helped Chhetri make himself the man he is today.

Sukhwinder Singh, who coached Chhetri at JCT and at the junior levels for the national team, described him as:  “Every era has its star… Sunil is that star of these times.”

By this time, Chhetri’s performances had not gone unnoticed. Foreign interest was brewing. He did join East Bengal- Mohun Bagan’s arch-rivals, but rumours of a move abroad refused to go away.

Before having joined East Bengal, Chhetri was linked with Portuguese side Estoril Praia but a move never materialised. Towards the middle of the season with East Bengal, Leeds United were said to be after him. The famous old side from Yorkshire were in League One and reports from both India and England linked them with Chhetri.

While there was hope that Chhetri would soon be on his way to greener pastures in foreign lands, nothing of note happened in that regard. And this sparked a little downward spiral in Chhetri’s career, with many claiming that he didn’t have his heart in playing in India and was more interested in moving abroad.

While he did score against his former side JCT in the Federation Cup to book a spot against Bagan in the semi-finals, it seemed like a shot at redemption. It could have been Chhetri’s chance to prove to his former employers that he had come a long way since that troubled three-year spell.

But fate had other ideas. Chhetri missed the decisive spot-kick for East Bengal, seeing them crash out of the tournament.

In January 2009, Chhetri went on trials at Coventry, who were then managed by Chris Coleman. He went for the trials in June once again. But nothing came of it. He had snubbed interested from LA Galaxy and DC United to pursue his England dream.

It was slowly becoming clear to many that Chhetri had his heart elsewhere. And East Bengal released him. Many still claim that the reason for it wasn’t anything else but his negotiations with foreign clubs. East Bengal had finished sixth in the I-League, as Chhetri failed to put his hands on silverware.

His next club would be Goa-based outfit Dempo, who had handed him a contract which stated that he would be free to go on trial at foreign clubs.

It is believed that Celtic did scout Chhetri during pre-season games in Spain, but reports in August 2009 broke the news about him having signed a three-year deal with Queens Park Rangers. While the London-based outfit would go onto play in the Premier League in the 2011-12 campaign, the move fell through, disappointingly enough for Chhetri.

As per the British work permit rules for playing football in England, non-European Union players are granted work permits if the country they represent is ranked within the top 70 in the FIFA Rankings. The best FIFA Ranking India achieved that year was 134.

While the rules have changed and have been modified to an extent now, they still hamper hopes of many non-EU players who continue to dream of playing in England someday. And the same rules came back to haunt Chhetri when he was on trial at Rangers in 2011, but he had to come back after just a single game against Hamburg.

The then Gers’ boss Ally McCoist promised to keep monitoring him and another fellow trialist Jeje Lalpekhlua. He said: “Sunil and Jeje did fine and showed up well in training.”

“They showed some lovely touches and adapted to the different surroundings they experienced.”

“They are away back home today but we will keep monitoring their situations and keep monitoring their performances back home.”

This though, was after Chhetri had become the first Indian player to step foot onto MLS soil. He had signed for Kansas City Wizards. While he hadn’t made a league appearance, he had appeared for the club in a friendly against Manchester United in the Red Devils’ pre-season tour of 2010.  Dimitar Berbatov, who won the Premier League golden boot in the 2010-11 season scored for United in that game.

By the time Chhetri was in the United States, Dempo had won the I-League in the 2009-10 campaign. Despite having spent a good portion of the season at Kansas, Chhetri had scored eight times in just 13 appearances for Dempo and had played a role in the march towards his first silverware.

Having left Kansas in February 2011 to stake his claim to play in the AFC Asian Cup. It was another Kolkata based club in Chirag United who came calling this time. He had signed for the remainder of the I-League season, but the seven games Chhetri played saw him score just as many goals for United. The stay was short and effective. It had helped him get back to the grove of goalscoring and had helped him recover his prowess after a namesake spell in the States.

India did crash out from the AFC Asian Cup in the group stages, but 2011 was Chhetri’s most productive year for the national team. He scored 13 times in 17 appearances, scoring twice in the Asian Cup in games against Bahrain and South Korea.

The short spell at United ended with Chhetri heading back to Mohun Bagan. He had proved a point to them, six years after having left the club because of lack of the amount of game time he had wanted back then. While he stayed at Bagan for only one season, scoring eight times in 14 appearances, Chhetri jetted off to Portugal at the end of his one-year deal.

He had signed for the Sporting Lisbon B side, where he stayed for a season and a half and made three appearances in the league. He shared the dressing room with would-be England international and Tottenham Hotspur star Eric Dier, before heading on loan to Churchill Brothers.

For Churchill, Chhetri shone again. He scored four times in eight appearances and again, proved why he was a real handful on his day. He helped India reclaim the Nehru Cup in 2012, finishing as the highest scorer of the tournament.

He still had the craft in his feet. Despite being diminutive, Chhetri knew how to use his body cleverly to shield opponents from the ball. He wasn’t the biggest, but his positioning and intelligence always stood out. His knack for being at the right place at the right time helped him deliver the goods whenever he was handed the chance.

The move back to India after his Sporting adventure ended was a new start altogether. Bengaluru FC came calling. It was here that Chhetri became a more well-rounded player than ever. Former Manchester United player Ashley Westwood was in charge. And his approach to football was about players working hard on the pitch and playing a brand of football that focused on counter-attacking and the wingers dropping deep.

Chhetri was forced to play out wide instead of playing in his favoured role as a striker. As much as he has admitted to not liking it too much, Chhetri achieved his highest goalscoring tally for a club that season. He scored 14 times that season – 15 in all competitions, as Bengaluru FC won the I-League under Westwood.

The same happened the next season too. And it was the third I-League title of his career. The side also reached the final of the AFC Cup and by this time, Chhetri had already become a national hero.

Still at Bengaluru FC after having left the club for Mumbai City, Chhetri’s presence in India is more than just that of a footballing star. He hasn’t just given teenagers of the country someone to look up to and follow in their quest to become future football heroes of the country, he has given the country hope again.

When BBC Sport recently published an article about Chhetri going past Lionel Messi’s record for the number of international goals, the 34-year-old brought the country to international limelight. It would have raised the eyebrows of many who hardly knew him outside India.

A global audience batting an eye at India for footballing reasons has become a rare phenomenon, but Chhetri made it possible. A country that has dominated cricketing headlines for over two decades was seeing something unique. It made India believe that the exploits of Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney or Cristiano Ronaldo might not be too far away after all. And if they are far away, it is not impossible to come near them or go past them.

At the age of 34, Chhetri continues to play with the same hunger and desire as he did when he was being moulded at JCT and Mohun Bagan. He still has that incisive touch, that killer finish and the ability to see spaces in the box that few can. His anticipation and footballing wit still stands out. More than everything, he still gives his all for the country. And still hopes that it will play in the FIFA World Cup someday.

Being knocked out of the AFC Asian Cup in the group stages of the competition was a sickening blow, also considering the manner in which it came. But what Chhetri did on that rainy and dreary day at the Mumbai Football Arena will live long in the memories of many. It brought the country together. It had united the people for something they had hardly united over the last few decades. More than being a unique spectacle, it was a magnificent spectacle.

Chhetri’s experiments with trying out for England never worked out. But somethings are just meant to be. Like Sunil Chhetri being India’s very own superhero whose legacy will live on for very long.

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