Sunil Chhetri, the captain of the Indian national football team, has been a leader and legend of the Indian footballing ecosystem for almost a decade. It is very well known that his hard work, discipline and passion for the game has brought him this far in football.
But, as we all know, a supportive family working from behind is often the biggest reason for an athlete’s success and Chettri, by his own admission, is no exception.
“I’m blessed and grateful in equal measure to have the kind of support system that I do in my family and close circle of friends,” he says as we start this interview.
“These are the people who have, time and again, put my success ahead of their comfort and have always had my back. They are people who are honest with me and call things as they see it. You won’t see them or hear of them often, but they are a vital cog in the way I function”, Chhetri adds.
Of course, he is talking about his parents Kharga Chhetri and Sushila Chhetri, sister Bandana Chettri, wife Sonam Chhetri and his friend-cum-manager Sonu Lamba. Following are excerpts:
The Bridge: How did Sunil start playing football?
Kharga: As enthusiast parents, we were very much keen to provide good education to Sunil. But simultaneously, long before he joined his pre-primary education in Gangtok and Darjeeling, he used to be restless at the sight of a ball. Even with his tender legs, we could see, he used to kick ball, try dribble no matter whether he is in a small room, or out in the street. Truly speaking in the beginning, we didn’t give any special attention to what he was doing. Simply because a boy in our family is always attracted to football. But as time went by his madness towards football was increasing in manifold and I too as a father and a football player gradually got attracted to his craze for the game.
Sushila: Sunil had a great passion for playing football and I used to see him stealing time here and there to be with a ball and a couple of friends to play with. Almost every day, he used to complete his homework immediately after arriving at home from school. He knew it beforehand; mom would not allow him for an extra hour of play if he had not completed his home assignments. Frankly speaking, it was the best treat to our eyes to see him play football, dribble past several boys, and score goals after goals. He had never ending hunger for new tricks of play, creating nutmegs, and I can’t forget his smile of satisfaction when dribbling past senior boys, or me or his dad. I remember, I used to hold him, kick him, bring him down to stop him play a nutmeg with me and at the end he used to cry and scream aloud. It was a real fun to see him play with his friends or with us parents.
The Bridge: When did you first realise that Sunil can make it as a professional footballer?
Kharga: As I already told you, my top most priority was to find a good school for our son. In 1989, I was posted to Calcutta, Fort William, leaving behind my kids and wife in Darjeeling. In the winter vacation same year Sunil, his sister and his Mom came to Calcutta for two months. Perhaps, that was the turning point in Sunil’s life as he fell in love with the lush green fields in and around Fort William. He cried and begged of me, not to take him back to school in Darjeeling when the vacation was over. It struck to my mind, the green fields around Fort William, can make my son happy as he was missing these surroundings in the hills.
The Bridge: Sushila, being a footballer yourself, how did you motivate and support Sunil in his journey?
Sushila: As his dad told you, in our entire family a child’s passion for football is nothing like extracurricular. So, the motivation was inbuilt for him. But more than that Sunil was really special and extraordinarily talented. From the day this boy started walking on his two tender legs, we could see him kick, throw his leg on any object that he may come across and obviously he used to fall down. Sometimes very badly with bruises on face or head. Seeing this intrinsic quality in Sunil, we both were very much motivated to spend time in the field with him. Sunil’s Dad, mostly being away on duty, I used to play the role of his buddy. Perhaps That has always been the motivation for him to play.
The Bridge: Coming to you Bandana, usually it’s our siblings with whom we share all our secrets and problems. Growing up together, how close were you to Sunil?
Bandana: Bhai and I were a “team” growing up. My childhood memories with him all revolve around some physical activity – playing sports, engaging in physical pranks and mischief (smiles). We had lessons on how to save yourself from mom’s scolding’s. Even though he’s only a couple of years older than me, I have always looked up to him. This started when we were very young, and it hasn’t changed till now.
The Bridge: How do you support Sunil during hard times?
Bandana: I can’t recollect too many hard times since he started playing professionally. But any time he picks up an injury, he gets quite grumpy. He hates every minute not spent on the field. So, at these moments we try to give him space and time to recover and then come back even stronger. I believe its positive reinforcement that always helps.
The Bridge: Sonam, as his life partner, you have been with him throughout the journey. How do you keep him motivated and provide support irrespective of the situation?
Sonam: Firstly, he is very much self- motivated and extremely determined. All I do is keep him calm and help him not to be too strict on himself. I always try to comfort him and try to stand beside him whatever may be the situation is.
The Bridge: How is it? Being married to a professional footballer?
Sonam: I think you should always be yourself no matter who you are in relationship with. Sunil being an athlete has only helped me to be better because I eat what he eats (which is very clean), he pushes me to join him to do workouts, he would come and share anything that he is reading (like cosmos). So personally, I have gained a lot more being his partner and he has helped me to shape up for better. And I think that is what I expect from a relationship where you can help each other grow better every day.
The Bridge: Sonu, you have been always been known as the man behind Sunil Chettri. What according to you are the key qualities in him that made him what he is today?
Sonu: No man, firstly this statement is absolutely rubbish (smiles). He is a different animal, man. I have not seen anyone who is so obsessed with winning. Even you are playing a board game, even if he is playing against a six-year-old kid, he doesn’t want to lose.
My daughter is seven and the other day, she was playing Ludo with Chettri Bhai. He didn’t let her win. He says that’s the way. You have to fight if you want to win. There are no off days for him, he is always so focused. He has always been like this. I would say his understanding about eating right, doing right kind of exercises, taking care of his physique came much later in his life but his passion to win, passion to perform well was always there from a very young age. His family and his friends have always been a strength but you can’t take away the man’s passion. He gives his life to sports.
The Bridge: Please share what are the positives that you see in Sunil as a son, a brother, a friend and most importantly as a life partner.
Sushila: To describe his biggest positivity, the first thing that comes to our mind is his discipline. He always gives his hundred percent to whatever he does in or off the field. For us as the parents he is a son full of positive vibes. Though we are parents but we really learn sincerity, kindness, dedication and carefulness from him and that’s really is one of the proudest moments for us.
Kharga: As Sushila told you Sunil’s approach in life is full of positivity. He is for me an example of total discipline and tremendous dedication. He is a diminutive football player who is always duty bound come what may. I feel it won’t be an exaggeration to call Sunil respectful, loving and caring for all.
Sonu: The most important thing is he doesn’t do things half-heartedly, either he will do it or will not do it. Be it his relationships, being a leader, a good football player, a son, a good friend, a mentor to the young players he will always be like that. He will always give his all heart and his complete soul. So, that I think is the greatest positives in Sunil and, something everyone could learn from him.
Sonam: His honesty, determination and his sense of humor are his biggest assets that I think helps him push himself all the time.
Bandana: He is the most hardworking and positive person I have ever known. His passion to keep improving himself is phenomenal. He always said to me that give your best in everything you do so that there are no regrets later. He lives by this mantra.
The Bridge: Does Sunil’s discipline and systematic approach to life come from growing up in a family of army man?
Kharga: Yes, undoubtedly so, because in an Army Cantonment surrounding a child gets to see things in entirely different perspective in terms of clean and spacious environment, disciplined neighborhood, and also various geographical regions at length and breadth of the country. So, it surely helped him in evolving his philosophy towards life.
The Bridge: Lastly, any emotional moment you want to share that depicts how your support helped Sunil to achieve heights or overcome odds…
Kharga: I don’t remember any such exclusive moment. However, there are moments when we are emotionally together at times of joy and sorrow alike. If I tell you one instance. In August 2008 When AFC Challenge Cup final could not be played in Hyderabad due to incessant rain, the venue was changed to Delhi as team India and Tajikistan played final at Ambedkar stadium. Sunil wanted me to pick one particular Nike boot from home for this match.
When I got home, I found the boot slightly sewn broken from one side. At that moment I had no time so I hurried to a cobbler to get that stitched and arrived at the venue in the nick of time. Thanks to god as Sunil could wore that boot, played the whole match scoring his first International hat trick. As India qualified for AFC Cup after 24 years.