Sunil Chhetri 'has made India proud' through years of dedication, says national football team coach Igor Stimac
The 35-year-old Chhetri on Friday became only the second Indian after legendary Bhaichung Bhutia to complete 15 years in Indian jersey
National team head coach Igor Stimac on Sunday hailed Sunil Chhetri, saying the talismanic captain was one of those who "glorified" Indian football with his dedication in the 15 years of his illustrious career.
The 35-year-old Chhetri on Friday became only the second Indian after legendary Bhaichung Bhutia to complete 15 years in Indian jersey. He made his debut in 2005 against Pakistan in Quetta in a friendly match. He had scored in the 1-1 drawn game.
According to Stimac, Chhetri is someone who always runs the extra yard, breaks some more sweat during training sessions, which encourages youngsters to emulate him.
"I see him as someone who always pushes the bar in training and never compromises with the regime. He drives the team and he is the character who defines the team. Numerous characters have glorified the Indian football history and he's definitely one of them who have made his country proud," the Croatian tactician said.
"Dedicated, workaholic and team man — those are some of the attributes which define Sunil Chhetri," he said in a release issued by the All India Football Federation.
The former Croatian World Cupper, who took charge of the national team last year, recalled seeing Chhetri during the preparatory camp ahead of the King's Cup 2019 — his maiden assignment with the Blue Tigers.
He pointed out that despite being the senior-most member of the team, Chhetri toiled maximum to achieve positive results after the heartbreak in AFC Asian Cup.
"When I first saw him last year, they were back to the National Team camp after a long gap following the AFC Asian Cup. A few boys were new but the fire under his belly probably was more than anyone else. That's the secret of his long career. Congratulations!" Stimac said.
Former India coach Sukhwinder Singh, who guided the Indians in that match against Pakistan in 2005, had said that he was not sure of Chhetri's credibility then.
"I needed someone who had the trickery, didn't have the fear, and had to be quick. Honestly, Sunil wasn't in my mind at all. He wasn't my first option. I had my doubts," Sukhwinder had said.
"I saw him maturing in JCT and there were flashes of what he could do in future. I still remember his hunger. In 19 years of my coaching career, I haven't seen anyone as dedicated as Sunil. He remained undaunted and was never willing to shy away from working hard.
"Shouldering the responsibility for 15 years demands discipline and he keeps it above everything else."
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India, who have won the regional football tournament seven times out of the 12 editions, open their campaign against Bangladesh on Monday.
Anything less than the trophy at SAFF Championship will be seen as a failure for Igor Stimac and the India men's football team.