15 years of Sunil Chhetri: Debut goal against Pakistan as Bhaichung Bhutia's replacement to record scorer for national side
It is now 5480 days since the moment Sunil Chhetri stepped up to the pitch in Quetta and he's gone from a 'maybe' in the starting XI to the first name on.
Indian football team landed in Pakistan in June 2005 with a cause of concern for coach Sukhwinder Singh. He was missing the talismanic Bhaichung Bhutia due to injury and needed a strong candidate to take over in what was an important away string of matches. "It was a nightmare for me that Bhaichung wasn’t available. It was in Pakistan, and I knew the pressure would be immense. I needed someone who had the trickery, didn't have any fear, and had to be quick," he recalls.
Step up: Sunil Chhetri. Or somewhat out of reluctance for Sukhwinder. Chhetri had played under the Punjab coach at JCT and had made his India U-20 debut two years prior. “He was short, and in front of physically strong defenders at the international level, did he have a chance?” Adding to his hesitation was the fact that Chhetri was carrying an injury.
A day later, Sukhwinder started with Sunil at the Ayub Stadium in Quetta. In the 65th minute, Chhetri did what he does best. The youngster collected the ball inside the penalty area and placed it past the keeper. Not one to shy away, Chhetri ran towards the disappointed Pakistan fans to celebrate but quickly ran back to his teammates when they jokingly decided to not join him in.
Shanmugam Venkatesh, the India captain at the time, recalls Chhetri's debut: "Sunil had a clear vision even during his early days. He was sure of what he wanted to do and achieve. I remember watching him train and thinking to myself that whether we have found our next striker after (IM) Vijayan and Bhaichung. But I never told him that. That may have made him complacent.”
15 years on from that day and one can defiantly say Chhetri is not complacent. It is now 5480 days since the moment Chhetri stepped up to the pitch in Quetta and he's gone from a "maybe" in the starting XI to the first name on the team sheet.
The 20 years, 10 months and 9 days old Chhetri is now 35 years, 10 months and 10 days old.
From a debutant with plenty to achieve and show for himself, he's now got 72 goals in the Indian jersey from 115 games and is the 10th highest scorer in international football.
From being just a name on the team sheet on that day in Pakistan, he is someone whose single plea can fill up a stadium. From being one of the 'who is this guy?' on 12 June, 2005, he has now played alongside a staggering 111 teammates.
Despite winning seven Footballer of the Year titles, finishing six times as the league top scorer, bagging a brace in India's first Asian Cup win in 55 years, the debut remains Chhetri's standout moment.
"I’m fortunate enough to have a few of them (standout moments) that I can pick from, but if I have to put my finger on one moment, it would be my India team debut against Pakistan. That’s the moment you dream about and it’s also the moment you keep looking back on to draw the courage and motivation to go on," he told Firstpost.
A day prior, Chhetri and Syed Rahim Nabi - the two youngest members of the squad - devoured biryani and shared nervous moments when visiting the Indian High Commission. The decision to get a debut came as a surprise. "Our emotions hadn’t sunk in. We could barely talk to each other and couldn’t sleep either. That jersey for that match is still with me and that feeling of representing your nation for the first time was a feeling which can’t be expressed."
Couple of years prior to the international debut, it was Subrata Bhattacharya who spotted Chhetri and brought him to Mohun Bagan, to play alongside Bhutia - Chhetri's idol. At first look, Bhattacharya wasn't impressed. "When you are assessing young footballers, perhaps once in a lifetime, a player would come along to lift your heart. I probably did not feel that way that morning. But what I did see were two teenagers who showed hints of promise, and loads of desire, and ambition. Those two kids were Sunil Chhetri and Subrata Paul." Goalie Subrata played 76 games for India and 20 alongside Chhetri.
"With regards to Sunil, he did show traits that could make him a top striker. He had good pace, and his shooting was more than decent. What really struck me was the desire he showed. At first sight, from the perspective of a tall defender like myself, his diminutive figure did not evoke any thoughts that he would be able to get on the goal."
"But he showed an excellent reading of the game. He constantly made runs off the ball, barking at his teammates to pass the ball to him. He was just five-foot-seven, but whenever there was a set-piece, he’d stick himself right into the towering defenders. That really showed the most important thing a coach looks for in a player – hunger," adds Bhattacharya.
15 years later, the motivation to keep going is still there in the Bengaluru FC striker. "There is no blueprint. I am at my happiest playing football for my country and club and I think that if happiness is not motivation enough to keep doing what you are, nothing else comes close. I enjoy training, preparing for a season, a game, the whole switch in routines off-season – all of it. I enjoy it," said Chhetri who is already preparing for the domestic season ahead and hoping for restrictions to be lifted to get going for India once again.
As someone who has shared the field for lengthy periods alongside Jeje Lalpekhlua, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Sandesh Jhingan, Pritam Kotal, Udanta Singh, Subrata and Gouramangi Singh, Chhetri finds it difficult to name an India XI comprising his teammates over the years. "I could never get down to doing that. I did attempt it when someone asked me to, but I just kept changing opinions so often because I have been so fortunate to play alongside some extremely talented and hard-working players. And I have made it a point to learn from all of them."
During a Facebook Live, Chhetri responded to Jhingan's teaser that he "can't be sure if he would be around for the 2026 World Cup" but has no plans to retire just yet. He acknowledged that it is important to have another youngster push him, and other India teammates, for their place. But until that happens, Chhetri is not going anywhere.
"I’d like to see us take the right steps to establishing ourselves as one of the top teams in the continent. There are so many things we need to do better, there are things we are working on to get better at the moment. Things will change, and it is upon us to ensure that they change in the right direction," he said on the next 15 years for Indian football.
Here's to hoping more goals for Chhetri, just the way it began 15 years ago.
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