The moment of Sunil Chhetri: A call, a goal and 100 reasons to smile

In a career where greatness wasn’t always preordained – but has time and again arrived on time – we were able to witness the genius of Sunil Chhetri once again – the man who has defined Indian football this century.

He has always had a panache of coming good at the big moments.- whether it be his hat trick against Turkmenistan which helped India qualify for the AFC Asian Cup in 2011, his magnificent performances in the erstwhile Nehru Cup, his litany of timely goals during India’s surge to the top 100 in the world 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’.

India has Chhetri and, on many a day, that has been enough – just like in the match before.

The call

“I request you all to please come …talk about the game, go back home, have discussions, make banners. Please get involved, this is an important time and juncture in Indian football and football in India needs you guys.”

Our captain left many speechless with his performance. But the buzz was real. Social media after the game saw an outpour of emotions while the air around many places in the country, for a change had football conversations.

The 4th of June would be remembered as the day ‘the call’ was heard. How many? That would surely not be a number easy to assess. The impact? Only time will tell.

On a personal level, I would remember this day as the one on which I, for the first time, saw an Indian football match alongside my fellow, who otherwise had never shown an inclination towards the sports. Even 1500kms away, Mr Chhetri, your call was heard.

For those who answered the call right to the core and were present at the Andheri Complex, they would remember the day as one where people from various parts of the country – from women to children, from students to veterans – turned to answer the call of one man. And in doing so, answered the call of a growing footballing nation.

The magic they say, lies in simplicity.

And nothing could have been simpler than the homemade video Sunil Chhetri had posted on his Twitter page a few days back urging people to come to the stadium and watch the national team play.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s not fun to criticise and abuse on internet. Come to the stadium, do it on our face, scream at us, shout at us, abuse us.”

But Chhetri gave them no reason to do so; at least for one night.

The AIFF, its media partners, the ISL and the various stakeholders have time and again spent millions on trying to get the eyeballs on football.

It has, however, never quite gotten the job done – as evident in the paltry attendance numbers in the first game of the Hero Intercontinental Cup against Chinese Taipei.

That would all change over the course of the 48 hours following the release of Chhetri’s video in the social media sphere. Support started pouring in. From Virat Kohli to La Liga to Abhishek Bachchan and even the football fan next door.

The pouring in didn’t stop there. Thankfully. Tickets were sold out and Mumbai showed up beating the odds and torrential downpour.

“With our desire and determination, we will try our best to make your time worth.”

Mr Chhetri more than lived up to his words.

The goal

For Indian football in the present century, Chhetri has consistently been in the Lionel Messi imperative, coming up with the goods time and again when his country and club have needed him the most.

And thus, the stage was set. The stage for him to produce that single piece of magic, the stage for him to produce that individual mastery that the Messi archetype of superstar demands on the big stage.

In fact it was the last minute of the game till he claimed the stage as his own. But claim he did. 

The man, who has had the penchant for producing outliers on the football in Indian colours, yet again didn’t let the occasion knock the wind out of him.

Chhetri doesn’t have the pace to always to burst beyond the last man or the physicality to truck down opponents time and again. He is the epitome of a cerebral being on the field who can rend through the opposition in various. 

Not the most ardent advocate of self-preservation, the energy he infused in the team during the difficult first forty-five minutes was a vintage reminder as to what he brings to the table – day in, day out.

His transgressions into the Kenyan backline would finally pay off (with some help from the referee) as he found the back of net to score on his 100th appearance from the penalty spot having won the same himself. But 22 minutes later, that would become ‘just another goal’.

The ‘goal of the century’ in Indian football was to be witnessed as Chhetri himself reached the final minute of his century.

It was one piece of play that would outline Chhetri’s singular vision, dexterity, timing, focus and technique; the ball fed to him by the ever-spry Balwant Singh was met by his perfectly timed run, which allowed him to race past the final defender, gave time to look up, find the goalkeeper coming off his line and then deftly lift it over his head and into the goal.

A moment of brilliance and a goal to show for it. 

Like Indian football has had so many times in the past, this was no Greek tragedy. Instead, it was the celebration of a man, his cause and his appeal. With the people he wanted to celebrate with – the people in the stands.

Chhetri’s appeal to the Indian football fans might have been an isolated incident but his performance certainly was not. This was a palimpsest, a new layer to the ever-growing cult figure of our beloved skipper.

A 100 reasons to smile and the importance of the ‘moment’

As Winston Churchill said, ‘There comes a special moment in everyone’s life, a moment for which that person was born. . . . When he seizes it . . . it is his finest hour.”

The moments that define one’s life can never be decided by oneself. One such would be the one that Chhetri decided to pick up his phone to record the video.

Also read: Sunil Chhetri gets a tribute on his 100th international appearance; but had to plead for it.

While his exploits on the field will unbearingly outweigh whatever he does on social media, this was a moment which can change the footballing scene in India if we can latch on to the inertia.

“We need better players than Chhetris instead of just Chhetri, because Chhetri has reached only 100.”

We certainly do. But we certainly need to celebrate our crown jewel as well – the man on a mission who sometimes looks like the mission himself.

A few years back, Indian football was like a bug on its back. Legs flailing out in all directions. Looking up at the heavens. Hoping for a turnaround.

In the last few years, that bug turned. Has been able to walk a fair bit and now is harbouring the courage to fly but it needs the zing that only faces in the stands can bring.

2017 was a good year for Indian football. The national team went on a brilliant run eventuating in our qualification for the AFC Asian Cup in 2019 but more importantly, we hosted the FIFA U17 World Cup.

Football really did take over. The gaudy attendance numbers were a testament to the same.

However, far too often, events in the Indian football spectrum has been granular.

And so it seemed when only 2500 odd turned up for the opener of the Hero Intercontinental Cup. Continuity seemed missing. Somewhere, somehow we had missed something that would glue the pieces together.

While the World Cup was built up as ‘the experience of a lifetime’ and a ‘historic time’ for the country, the ISL and the I-League never really kept that emotional torrent going.

In Chhetri and his message, we might have just found the glue that puts it all together.

Sunil Chhetri doesn’t think he is an inspiration to international players. Stephen Constantine in the post-match press conference didn’t think that Chhetri needed to beg people to come to stadiums to watch

India and the emotion of its people told a different story altogether at the Andheri Complex yesterday night.

In more than a sense, you would have to agree with Constantine. But we don’t live in a perfect world and the emotional quotient is just too big to ignore in any context.

A captain called and we answered. 

Football and football fans in India haven’t had many occasions to smile about in the last decade, let alone in history. However, if we recount those rare moments in the recent past, somewhere and somehow, our captain has a big role to play in it.

For one night, we, hopefully, put a smile on his as well.