AFC Cup: Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri creates history, instead of merely being a part of it
Bengaluru's number 11, Chhetri is quite easily the most loved player in the club, and quite possibly the country right now. He is Indian football's new face.
As Bengaluru FC were trailing at the beginning of the second half, it was impossible to imagine a comeback. It was then that the home crowd at the Kanteerava stadium chose to really make its presence felt: "Chhetri, Chhetri, he scores when he wants".
Back from his less-than-memorable stint at Sporting Lisbon, and facing a barrage of ridicule from the Indian press about it, Sunil Chhetri decided to lay low and work hard for the one team that was willing to give him another chance at that time. He joined Churchill Brothers as they won the I-League in 2013, sparking hopes of a longer association and perhaps more glory soon.
But it wasn't to be. In the same year, Chhetri shocked everyone again, signing for the new entrants to the I-League, Bengaluru FC. However, for India's talisman, it was a challenge. He had to prove himself afresh in a set-up that did not come with any history or baggage of expectation. It gave him a chance to write history and not just be a part of it.
If he knew that at that time, he didn't really admit it.
Bengaluru's number 11 is quite easily the most loved player in the club, and quite possibly the country right now. He is Indian football's new face, replacing Baichung Bhutia in the cultural space occupied by the Indian football fans. When they sang about Bhutia, the chant went something on the lines of how he was the only player of importance, the rest being 'idiots'.
It is perhaps appropriate that the chant they sing about Chhetri at the stadium, has less to do with the inefficiency of other players and more to do with his brilliance.
Bengaluru went behind 11 minutes into the match, and then wrested back control in the 41st. It was Chhetri, who had been playing wisely all evening - holding possession, dropping deep and constantly playing the ball out to the flanks -who headed in the equaliser. He had missed a glorious opportunity earlier, finding the post when the net may have been simpler. It didn't matter now.
The gallery erupted. However, the supporters knew they were back in the match, but a lot of work still needed to be done.
Chhetri, Bengaluru's captain, their talisman, their highest goalscorer, wanted not just to be a part of history, but very much the creator of it all.
About half an hour later, there was joy in the stands again. What looked like a bad first touch, was improvised into a dribble and a cut back, before Chhetri unleashed one of his curlers, finding the net. This time, the joy was frenzied. But Chhetri was restrained.
Bengaluru's defending in the tournament has not been great. They conceded more than they scored in the group stages, and in the knockouts too, they had conceded in every match, barring the second leg against Tampine Rovers. Despite Johor's ineffective display, the fear of conceding was always real.
Each goal Bengaluru scored was met with jubilance, but also with caution. Almost like a reminder: we have two now. Johor need only one.
There were no nerves though from those on the pitch. It was an immaculate display, the home side playing like a home side should, dominating possession, challenges and the control. Johor may have been the defending champions, but last night they were a bad imitation of themselves. Defending champions and continental heavyweights are not supposed to throw away leads so easily.
Johor's players slumped to their haunches and stared vacantly into the distance after the match ended. They could not comprehend how they had let three goals in. The Kanteerava erupted for a third time when Spanish defender Juan Antonio Gonzalez Fernandez scored in the 75th minute, but by now Chhetri was spent and Keegan Pereira - another of those who resurrected his career at Bengaluru - came on.
No one had predicted this. Dempo and East Bengal had both suffered heartbreaks at this stage of the tournament in the past. Johor were chasing their fourth title of the season, and were looking by all accounts like that invincible Barcelona side under Pep Guardiola, if only for their achievements and not style.
Right at the end, Indian football had another first. A streaker on the pitch. A Bengaluru faithful, who jumped the barrier, ran up to the pitch, and seeing no opposition, turned around to walk away a bit embarassed. No one really wanted to stop him. It was that kind of night. If you were a Bengaluru fan, the world was yours.
Bengaluru fans have never seen scandals, disasters, or any of the other devils that constantly plague Indian football hitting them. Perhaps that's the best thing about starting afresh. You create your own history, discarding the baggage that brings you down. Chhetri knows what he wants. And now, let us hope it isn't a runners up medal.
Throughout the tournament, this team has continually found the strength to meet each challenge and fight off the weariness that must lurk within them after a season that opened in January. The purpose is still not over, though. There is a final to be played. And to be won.
The power has shifted. Now the consolidation begins.
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