“Whenever it’s time for me to go and somebody else to come, I just hope he comes because he is better than me…not because I didn’t work hard.”
Sunil Chhetri would be well aware that completing 15 years in international football puts him in exalted company.
Others have reached this mark before, definitely; but if you restrict your gaze to Indian footballers and there is only but one monolith in the realm of the monoliths – that of Bhaichung Bhutia.
It needs to be understood that intermittent, part-time genius does not make the cut at this level; only true legends need apply.
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) June 12, 2020
This achievement is not about endurance — or at least not just about that. It is about dedication, fitness and about a teeny bit of luck, indeed coupled with an almost Godly kind of sustained, malleable excellence. It is about the ability to adapt, to convince your relevance to the fans, the football pundits, the many coaches. To sustain 15 years at the top, you have to be fiercely unignorable.
In case of Chhetri, of course, he checks all those boxes. Across 15 years and 115 international matches for the Indian national team, he has been relentless, to that extent that there’s almost an ambivalent indifference while greeting this landmark.
“I am fortunate to have played 15 years for my country. It is a dream, 3-4 years more probably and it will be (nearly) 20 years. Who would have thought to play 20 years and so I am living my dream,” the 35-year-old says. Of course Sunil Chhetri has completed 15 years in international football. He’s Sunil Chhetri.
To think that he made his India debut, on this day in 2005, in the provincial capital of Balochistan, against arch-nemesis Pakistan… and now, 15 years later, he is where he is, the demi-god-like cult figure that he has created… it’s almost unimaginable.
Remember Chhetri’s plea the night before his 100th match in national colours? Remember the response? You do, everyone does. It was such a moment. Because prior to that, no one had ever thought that in a cricket-obsessed country, a footballer could become such an influential figure.
For many, Chhetri is the reason why they started following football. Growing up, like every Indian kid in the block, much before I had got a chance to even acquaint myself with other sports, cricket was injected into my system. I mean, it was everywhere — especially in the late 90s and early 2000s, in Calcutta, the city of Maharaja Sourav Ganguly, not a day would pass without some activity involving the sport.
I don’t even remember the first cricket match that I watched, I was so small. Not demeaning any achievements by our footballers at that time, but it never felt like the Blue Tigers would wake up from their sleep and roar.
Naturally, to us 90s kids, cricket was the religion and the word Captain would be synonymous with Ganguly. Then, when the long-maned Mahendra Singh Dhoni lifted two World Cups, he took over that throne.
Nowadays, though, it is hard to not say Chhetri’s name in response to the word Captain. The cricket team is still winning laurels, Virat Kohli is breaking records every day, but somehow, it is Chhetri who has made the most endearing mark as Captain in recent years.; this is the endpoint of a journey, the result of an impossible amount of hard work.
He has always had a panache of delivering in the biggest of moments — whether it was his hat trick against Turkmenistan which helped India qualify for the AFC Asian Cup in 2011, his incredible performances in the erstwhile Nehru Cup, his litany of crucial goals during India’s surge to the top 100 in the world rankings or his brilliant performance against Kenya in his 100th game in Indian colours in front of a sold out crowd who acted upon his ‘call’.
When you take a brisk overview of his long career, his achievements on the pitch, his pivotal role in this modern Indian football team’s success, and the connection he has built up with fans over the years, it doesn’t take long to realise why Chhetri is truly India’s captain.
Then again 15 years is a long time, the question of who next is always on the horizon but let’s ignore it, at least for this day. Let’s ignore the idea of inevitability, let’s allow his sheer greatness to blind us. “I am enjoying my football and am not going away anytime soon,” Chhetri has promised. Has he ever let India down?