Sunil Chhetri’s Twitter plea to fans and the full house in Mumbai only cement his status as the face of Indian football who transcends the sport in this cricket-crazy nation.
New Delhi: At last count, it has garnered 58.2K retweets and 123K likes on Twitter. But more importantly, Sunil Chhetri’s passionate appeal to fans on the micro-blogging site, urging them to turn up at the stadium to watch the Indian football team, achieved what the organisers of the Intercontinental Cup could not manage.
This is nothing but a small plea from me to you. Take out a little time and give me a listen. pic.twitter.com/fcOA3qPH8i
— Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) June 2, 2018
On Monday, a full house at the Mumbai Football Arena watched India take on Kenya in the Intercontinental Cup — a far cry from the paltry turnout four days ago that saw the team steamroll an understrength Chinese Taipei side (5-0).
And a day after the impassioned plea, in which he promised that the team would show “desire and determination,” Chhetri’s team did just that against the Kenyans — rallying in the second half after an insipid start before running away with the game 3-0.
The captain once again took centrestage, slotting home a penalty before rounding off the win with a sublime chip for the team’s third goal.
If anything, Chhetri’s plea to fans, the subsequent full house in Mumbai, and his pivotal role in yet another win only cement his status as the foremost footballer in the country whose achievements transcend the sport in this cricket-crazy nation.
At 33, there seems to be no slowing down the Indian captain and the country’s most capped player — the game against Kenya was his 100th international.
The two goals against Kenya put Chhetri in exalted footballing company — he is the third highest active goal scorer in international football. His tally of 61 goals puts him only behind Lionel Messi (64 goals) and Cristiano Ronaldo (81 goals) — he had equalled David Villa’s 59 international goals when he scored a hat-trick in the game against Chinese Taipei.
It’s a scoring streak that began in his debut game, a friendly, against Pakistan at Quetta on 12 June, 2005. Over the years, the captain has been the mainstay of the team playing a major role in India’s Nehru Cup wins in 2007, 2009 and 2012.
In August 2008, Chhetri’s hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Tajikistan in the AFC Challenge Cup Final helped secure qualification for the 2011 AFC Asia Cup after 27 years. Although India failed to win a single game, Chhetri finished with two goals in the tournament.
The country has qualified for the 2019 Asia Cup, after missing out on the 2015 edition, and Chhetri is expected to lead the forward line again.
During his time, Chhetri has experienced lows, including missing out on the 2015 Asia Cup and enduring one of the country lowest points in 2014, when its rankings plummeted to 171. It has since rebounded and the country is now ranked 97.
Chhetri, forever the focus of clubs at home and abroad, has had two stints outside the country.
He was signed by the Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer in 2010 which made him the third player from the subcontinent to be signed abroad, while in 2012, he was part of the Sporting Lisbon B side.
Long road from Secunderabad
Growing up, Chhetri told Shekhar Gupta in this Walk The Talk interview (see below), football was in his blood. His father, an Army man, played for the Indian Army’s Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, headquartered in Secunderabad, where the Indian football team captain was born. His mother and her twin sister played football for Nepal.
Chhetri began to make his mark, he says, when he left the Army Public School, Delhi, to study in Mamta Modern, a little known school in the Capital but one, he says, with footballing pedigree in those days.
That brought him to the attention City FC, a Delhi-based club, and before long to the attention of scouts from Mohun Bagan. He signed for the Kolkata giants at the age of 17 in 2002, when he teamed up with idol Baichung Bhutia.
“It was the year Baichung bhai came back from Bury (then English third division side). He said I’ve heard thing about you and you’re doing good kid. I told everyone about it,” he told Shekhar Gupta. In three years, Chhetri says in the interview, he had gone from being shooed away while trying to meet Bhutia, during a Durand cup tournament in Delhi, to sharing the stage with him.
The two shared the Indian dressing room till Bhutia retired in 2011, passing on the mantle to Chhetri, who has now firmly established himself as the face of Indian football.