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The Sunil Chhetri conundrum: Will India ever find a forward like him?

The Sunil Chhetri conundrum: Will India ever find a forward like him?

Abhranil Roy

Published: 27 July 2019 7:18 AM GMT

A man can have many names, but for Sunil Chhetri there is only one. Indian football’s most reliable and well-known striker, arguably even more so than his illustrious predecessor Bhaichung Bhutia is known as 'Captain, Leader, Legend' to fans across the length and breadth of the country. His claim to fame is an extremely distinguishable one as well; he is the second highest active international goal scorer, ahead of even the likes of Leo Messi and Robert Lewandowski and trailing only Cristiano Ronaldo.

Having started his career with Mohun Bagan in 2002, the 34-year-old has had an exceptional career so far, featuring against Manchester United for Kansas City Wizards in 2010 in a pre-season friendly. However, his most remarkable achievements have been with Bengaluru FC. Featuring for the defending Indian Super League champions since 2013, Chhetri has won it all in the domestic circuit and bought a fresh lease of life to the Indian national team as well. In short, he has single-handedly carried the Blue Tigers on numerous occasions, and in doing so has probably created a gaping hole that now looks seemingly impossible for someone else to fit in.

Chhetri’s records speak for themselves…

Almost synonymous with the Blue Tigers, Sunil Chhetri has been ageing like fine wine. With him leading the line, India has won the 2007, 2009 and 2012 Nehru Cup as well as the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup and the 2011 SAFF Championships. More recently, he captained India to a victory at the 2018 Intercontinental Cup as well as their short-lived 2019 AFC Asian Cup campaign. He is currently gearing up for a new season with Bengaluru FC, and also to lead India in their second round group stage Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

71 goals in 111 appearances for the national team, six times AIFF Player of the Year, winner of the Indian Super League and the Super Cup, an Arjuna awardee and a Padmashri: Chhetri’s stack of honors, both personal and professional is endless. He has been the face of Indian football for the better part of a decade now, and is in seemingly no mood to stop. In his own words, he will only retire when he feels he can no longer get the most out of his body, but not before.

But does that necessarily bode well for Indian football?

When put forward without context, this seems like a rather illogical question. With his accomplishments, experience and pedigree, Indian football will only prosper and grow with the presence of Chhetri. However, in the long haul, overdependence on Chhetri will only hurt India and the signs have already started to appear.

In 2019 itself, India was knocked out from three tournaments, the AFC Asian Cup, the Kings Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. India came close to qualifying for the knockout stages of the Asian Cup, but lost to a last-ditch goal from Bahrain. In both the Kings’ Cup and Intercontinental Cup, they were humiliated by far better opposition. However, amongst the handful of players who did make an impression, Chhetri was at the top of the pile. The captain scored 6 out of the 11 goals India netted in these 3 competitions, which means his share of goals, is almost 55%. This is a concern, especially when you consider the fact that the rest of the team combined did not score as many goals as he did.

Indian national football team during Intercontinental Cup in July this year

What are the alternatives?

From Balwant Singh to Jeje Lalpekhlua to Robin Singh, India has tried several options down the years to support Chhetri. But all of them have suffered from inconsistencies and injuries, which has left the captain to handle the pressure of always delivering in every game. Even the current crop of forwards, be it Sumeet Passi, Manvir Singh or Farukh Chowdhury have all had extremely disappointing outings in the national jersey so far.

It is also not just the goal scoring aspect of things that the likes of Sumeet or Balwant suffer form, it is also in many ways, the mentality and understanding of the game. Watching Chhetri on the field is like watching a tiger roam around in its natural habitat, he will run after loose balls, pressurize defenders and make runs behind the backline at every instance possible. Under Igor Stimac, the Indian team has started zonal pressing and Chhetri has led the press from the front on numerous occasions, even if the rest of the team failed to support his efforts.

Why the dearth in quality of the replacements?

There is no simple answer to this, but much of it stems from the fact that the Indian forwards simply do not receive enough game time to get in tune with the fitness and sharpness required to perform at the international level. Chhetri, who has plyed his trade in both Europe and America has himself been vocal recently, asking for Indian footballers to be able to play more than 50 games a season if the country is actually serious to play the World Cup anytime soon.

Currently, Manvir, Ashique Kuruniyan, Farukh, Balwant and Jeje all feature for Indian Super Leagues and get to play only twelve to sixteen games a season in the domestic circuit. These five, who are quite simply India’s next generation of forwards, have only 7 goals and 4 assists in between them, in a combined total of seventy-six appearances last season.

The dearth in quality does not only stem from the lower number of games the Indian footballers play, but also from the lower number of minutes they get to play. It would next to impossible to find any country that takes its football seriously banking on players who hardly get to play 1000 minutes throughout the season (only Balwant and Ashique have more than 1000 minutes of football, as is shown in the list).

This is a direct results of the tendency of clubs and franchises to bring foreign recruits as strikers and forwards as they tend to score more and often. In the ISL for example, there is only one Indian forward in the top five goalscorers from last season, and there are no prizes for guessing who that forward is (Chhetri with nine goals). Not that the I-League is any better, it also had just one Indian in the top five list (Jobby Justin with nine goals).

To sum it up, it is hard to see exactly from where India’s next superstar and consistent forward are supposed to step up from. With the AIFF and FSDL still dithering over which league to promote as the top-tier, there is little or no clarity on when football will be the primary focus of the governing organization once again. Until that time, it seems Chhetri will have to shoulder the dreams of the Indian football fans, as he keeps on doing time and again.
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