Asian Icons: Sunil Chhetri
Kuala Lumpur: In the era of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, to be the third highest scoring international footballer in the world is no mean feat, and for an Asian player to be within one goal of Messi’s 65 goals for a national team is a record our latest inductee to the “Asian Icons” list should be proud of.
As he turns 34 today, we celebrate the career of Sunil Chhetri, India’s most capped player and all-time top goalscorer.
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Clubs: Mohun Bagan, JCT, East Bengal, Dempo, Kansas City Wizards, Chirag United, Sporting CP, Churchill Brothers, Mumbai City and Bengaluru
Honours: AFC Challenge Cup (2008); SAFF Suzuki Cup (2011, 2016); I-League (2010, 2013, 2014, 2016)
International appearances (goals): 101 (64)
Start of an era
In a cricket-mad nation, Chhetri was raised in a footballing family, where his father represented the Indian Army team while his mother and aunt were international footballers for Nepal. Chhetri caught the football fever, but never imagined how far he would go.
A journey that would take him to become one of Indian and Asian footballs greats started a thousand miles away from Chhetri’s birthplace in Secunderabad, when he signed for Mohun Bagan in 2002.
Despite a difficult start to life in Kolkata, Chhetri eventually established himself, earning a first international call-up. It was a huge occasion for the then 20 year old, especially as India were facing arch-rivals Pakistan.
The story of 64 goals and counting started with a bang as Chhetri marked his debut with a goal he cherishes to this day, “That goal always comes to my mind when asked about my favourite goal,” he reminisces. “It was against Pakistan, in Pakistan, and I was 19 or 20, and on my debut. It will always be special to me.”
Return to Asia
It was the first of many occasions Chhetri’s strikes brought joy to fans of the Blue Tigers, “There are a few great moments that also spring to mind but the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup when I scored a hat-trick against Tajikistan in the final [to progress to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup] was very sweet.”
Chhetri was four months old when India last played in an AFC Asian Cup, so being the man who delivered a return to the top continental tournament after 27 years was a moment that helped cement Chhetri’s legacy as an Indian superstar.
The 2011 Finals were a reality check for India, as they found themselves drawn against heavyweights Australia and Korea Republic in addition to a Bahrain side that had finished fourth seven years earlier. “It was the first time after a long gap that India qualified, and we had worked really hard to get there,” reflects Chhetri. “Although we had a very difficult draw, it was a great tournament.”
The team predictably finished bottom of the group, shipping 13 goals, but it was not all doom and gloom. After they had gone goalless in 1984, India broke a 47-year wait for an AFC Asian Cup goal in the 5-2 defeat to Bahrain. A flying header against Bahrain and a spot-kick against Korea Republic meant Chhetri became only the second Indian to score two AFC Asian Cup goals, after Inder Singh in 1964.
Missing on qualification for the following edition was a blow for India, many presumed a 30-year-old Chhetri would bow out with 2011 as his proudest moment in an India shirt. “The experience of not qualifying to the next edition really hurt us,” explains Chhetri, on what it meant to the team. “It is really important that we keep qualifying and show steady growth, and that’s why we were deeply disappointed not to make it.”
Little did the India captain know, he would go on to surpass a century of caps and score 21 more international goals since 2015 to rival the world’s greatest players of the generation and in the process lead his nation to a fourth AFC Asian Cup in their history with four goals in the qualifiers. He also helped India lift the 2015 SAFF Suzuki Cup and was named the tournament’s MVP.
His club career also rose to new heights, in the past few years since joining JSW Bengaluru, Chhetri scored 14 AFC Cup goals, leading the club to become the first Indian side to reach the competition’s final in 2016.
At 34, Chhetri is showing no signs of slowing down, recently signing a new contract that will keep him at Bengaluru until 2021 as he looks to take them past the 2018 AFC Cup Inter-Zonal Semi-Final where they face Turkmenistan’s Altyn Asyr.
January’s AFC Asian Cup in the UAE is the next stop for Chhetri who is looking forward to rubbing shoulders with Asia’s finest once more. “It’s an opportunity to test ourselves against the very best in Asia,” he told the-AFC.com ahead of the tournament’s draw in May, “It brings immense happiness to be back in the tournament. I’m glad especially for all the youngsters who will get an opportunity to experience what it is like to be in such a tournament.”
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