Sunil Chhetri has been around for a while. Amid scoring goals, shuttling between teams, leagues, countries and a handful of national team coaches, time seems to have flown by. The realisation dawns on him in a way he would have least expected. Manvir Singh, a 22-year-old national team rookie, tries to remind him of the times Chhetri had faced his father while playing against Punjab Police for JCT in the early noughties.
Chhetri fondly narrates this anecdote in the press conference before his 100th game, but his longevity in Indian football that it projects, stands out.
It has been 13 years since Chhetri made his national team bow. It came in a friendly game against Pakistan at Quetta. The forward reveals it came as a surprise. However, what followed wasn't.
Chhetri repaid the faith of Sukhwinder Singh — then India coach — by scoring a goal in the 1-1 draw, a sight that has been a constant in Indian football since. It was a moment he describes "one of the best" in his life and remembers it for the celebration.
"I still remember my first match for India. When I scored a goal, in all euphoria I ran to the Pakistani fans and started to celebrate. There is a very sad photo, where I am doing this (happy action) and nobody is following me," the Indian captain recalls.
That's a rare sight these days. Not the goals but the celebrations. It's muted to an extent that some fans feel that their captain doesn't enjoy it anymore. It's a stark contrast from his iconic slide after scoring in the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008. It was a time when a young prodigy matured into a star and showcased his killer instincts in front of goal.
Chhetri had a quiet tournament by his own lofty standards until his four goals in the competition arrived. When they did, they were worth its weight in gold. The first came in the 1-0 semi-final win over Myanmar, before a sublime treble sunk Tajikistan in the final. India were back in the AFC Asian Cup after more than two decades, but equally important was the rise of a new star on the horizon — a baby-faced assassin that had enough magic about him to fascinate the crowd.
These days a lot about Chhetri appears different. Gladly for India, the things that he does on the football pitch aren't among those. He is no longer the young kid on the block, he is a captain, the senior-most player in the side and most crucially a genuine role model. In a team flooded with youngsters, Chhetri needs to be one, but he does it with minimum fuss.
"I always try to be a good example. I have understood that lectures don't work. If I go up to Udanta and say to him about the importance of being on time, the importance of hitting the gym, maybe he will not take me seriously. Instead, I try to do it for myself so that the boys can follow. I know a few of them follow. I know they see me eat and when I see them following it, it feels so good. It's so satisfying," the Indian captain revealed.
Simplicity and sincerity are virtues that make him human for those looking up to him. Everyone has anxieties, Chhetri is simple enough to admit it and sincere enough to make efforts to overcome it. The plea he made to his countrymen through a short video ahead of the 100th game was reflective of that. There was empathy in addressing the reasons people have for not attending games, but there was a genuine will to convince them that their hardships to make it to one would be made worthwhile.
Chhetri is no alien to the challenges Indian football faces, he makes no attempt to hide the nation's failures in developing into a force in the continent, let alone the world. He believes India needs much better than their best to achieve itst high goals.
"If we make only more Chhetris we will only remain around the 100-rank mark. We will never improve. So we need better than Chhetris. Chhetri could only push till 100, so we need better players than me so that we could reach much higher," Chhetri explains.
"I think we are on the right path. There is steady progress. But the sad part is that we have to compare. When we compare ourselves with the Asian teams, we lag behind and that makes me sad. Have we grown in the last 13 years that I have played? Yes, it has been slow and gradual. But we are far off from where wanted to be," he adds.
However, Chhetri doesn't stop there. He can do more than just raise concerns. Over the years, the man has developed a perspective, one that helps him see things differently, one that helps him provide a solution.
"Where we want to reach is a faraway place. So we need to take small steps. What I would do personally is improve myself because I am a small pawn in the whole structure. But to just improve myself is a huge work. I just focus on that. I work very hard to improve myself. When I get little time I encourage my team. That's all the time I have.
"If the AIFF, other players, coaches, media, fans and the government put their heads down and do their work, we will progress as a whole," Chhetri suggests.
Maybe that's why the celebrations are muted. There's always work to be done in Indian football. The wise veteran that Chhetri has grown into, knows it all too well.
Despite that, on the eve of his 100th national cap, Chhetri feels fortunate and honoured to have trodden such a long path. The number doesn't matter to him as much but a phone call with an emotional mother forces him to welcome the plaudits.
"I always said from my heart that milestones don't matter. I have never said it with arrogance. I am actually not thinking about it, but the build-up to this game, reading so much, getting messages, I was talking to my mum and she got emotional, and how big it was for her actually made me realize how big it is," the 33-year-old revealed.
His biggest concern though is to keep the emotions in check and not let it affect the game.
"It feels special that I am going to be just the second Indian to play 100 games, to get a hundred chances to represent my country, to wear the blue jersey and sing the national anthem. I just hope that I can keep my emotions in control, go there and stick to the plan and try to win the game," Chhetri expressed before letting the professional in him take over. He is too invested in the cause, to let personal matters affect it.
Sunil Chhetri is the hero India needs, but may be not the one it deserves. So till the time another baby-faced assassin shows up on the field, India will dread the eventual departure of the former.
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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2018 15:45 PM