The first name which strikes people’s minds when they think of Indian football is Sunil Chhetri. The Hyderabad-born forward continues to be the face of the sport even at 34 years of age.
Spearheading India’s progress in the international arena for both club (Bengaluru FC) and country, amassing the highest number of caps (105) and scoring the highest number of goals (67) does help.
In fact, Chhetri stands second in the list of top active international goalscorers behind Cristiano Ronaldo (85 goals) and ahead of Lionel Messi (65 goals). Further, he finished 21st in the ‘Best Footballer in Asia’ rankings in 2018, awarded by Titan Sports, ahead of the likes of former Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta and Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa.
Thus, the Indian captain is a serial winner whose consistency and impact for close to two decades only highlights his passion, desire and resolve towards football. No wonder, he continues to, remarkably, get better with age.
However, all good things eventually come to an end and so will Chhetri’s time at the top of Indian football. In such a scenario, it is imperative for a successor to fill in his big boots on two fronts – as a player and leader.
IM Vijayan passed on the baton to Bhaichung Bhutia, the latter handed it over to Chhetri and now the question beckons, who will the BFC captain pass on the torch to. The most obvious answer is 27-year old Jeje Lalpekhlua.
Making his international debut in 2011, the ‘Mizo Sniper’ is considered as the heir-apparent to Chhetri. The first-choice striker for both Chennaiyin FC and India, Jeje is already an established senior in the national side, with over a half-century of caps to his name.
Further, the Mizoram lad already has 22 international goals and is a true fox-in-the-box striker, who always knows how to find the back of the net. He achieved success on the domestic front as well, winning the I-League and Federation Cup with Mohun Bagan, and the Indian Super League (ISL) twice with Chennaiyin FC. The latter one includes toppling Chhetri’s BFC in last season’s finals.
Jeje is currently in a bad run of form, having failed to score in the 2018/19 ISL so far. However, he can be expected to be back among the goals, sooner than later, starting with the AFC Asian Cup.
Looking beyond Jeje, there is definitely a dearth of talented strikers in the country. National coach Stephen Constantine lamented over the situation recently and stated the signing of foreign strikers by ISL clubs as a key deterrent.
24-year old Sumeet Passi is another prospect who can possibly succeed Chhetri. He currently plies his trade at Jamshedpur FC in the ISL and is a part of the national setup at the AFC Asian Cup. However, he still has some way to go, especially in hitting high levels of consistency in performances and scoring goals.
While there are a few more names in the game, such as FC Goa’s Manvir Singh, Jamshedpur’s Farukh Choudhary and Shillong Lajong’s Samuel Lalmuanpuia, none are currently close to replacing Chhetri.
Thus, Jeje is the closest to succeed Chhetri as the one to marshall the Indian attack and of course, score goals.
If replacing Chhetri’s goals is tough, then finding such a phenomenal leader on and off the field is a more difficult task. The 34-year old never shies away from addressing the various issues plaguing the sport, is revered by his team-mates and absolutely adored by the fanbase.
Chhetri’s video plea on Twitter urging fans to come and support the team during the 2018 Intercontinental Cup became the most-retweeted Indian tweet of the year and led to full-packed stadiums in subsequent matches.
Now, that is a very difficult cocktail to concoct. It can only be achieved by a combination of talent and passion and luckily, Chhetri has it in spades.
Coming to finding his successor, Constantine’s much-debated rotating captains’ policy could actually prove to be a smart move. The national coach emphasised on the need to have more captains in the side since he took over as a way for players to accept responsibility and speak up often in the dressing room.
His current four captains are goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, centre-back Sandesh Jhingan, Jeje and Chhetri. While Jeje does his talking on the pitch, Jhingan is a natural leader at the back. His excellent marshalling of the defence in a 0-0 draw against China recently highlighted his leadership aspects.
Further, the 25-year old captains the Kerala Blasters in the ISL and is one of the highest-earning defenders in the league.
The fourth captain is Bengaluru FC shot-stopper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. The 26-year old is one of the best-ever goalkeepers the country has ever produced. He became the first Indian to play in the European top-flight, a feat he accomplished with Norwegian side Stabaek in 2016.
Sandhu then became the first Indian to play in the UEFA Europa League in the same year. Thus, the Punjab lad possesses talent, stature and experience to command his team-mates’ and country’s respect. No wonder, Constantine handed him the armband for the Asian Cup opener against Thailand.
While neither of the three is at Chhetri’s level in terms of fame and respect both within and beyond the sport, they are solid talents and able leaders. Constantine’s decision to rotate his captains could prove to be the masterstroke which helps the national side steady itself whenever Chhetri decides to hang up his boots.
Thus, Chhetri will continue to be the gold standard in Indian football for as long as he chooses to be. Ageing like wine, he can play for as long as he wants, similar to Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Italy’s Paolo Maldini.
While there is no definite successor, Jeje is more than capable of taking over the mantle in the goalscoring department. Further, one among him, Gurpreet and Sandesh or all of them can prove to be the right leaders to take Indian football up another level.
Finally, the continued success of ISL coupled with the national team’s improvement should ensure India has more than a single footballing superstar by the time Chhetri walks into the sunset.
Until then, people can savour a generational talent every time the BFC and national captain steps onto the pitch.