Millennium Post

Sunil Chhetri: Captain Fantabulous

Donning the national jersey since 2004, Sunil Chhetri has traversed several undulating terrains to ultimately capture a proud place in the heart of temperamental Indians, asserts Daman Singh.

"Abuse us, criticise us but please come to watch us" – these were the words that had escaped from the lips of a pleading national hero, Sunil Chhetri, prior to the Intercontinental Cup final against Kenya.

Fast forward to the end of the final... India had lifted the cup after securing a convincing 2-0 victory over Kenya. India's talisman embellished his 100th match for the country by bagging a brace in front of a sold out Mumbai Football Arena – after his heartfelt video message plea to his fellow countrymen did the rounds on social media, loyal Indians showed up in hundreds, exhilarating a grateful Chhetri. It was a special night for the humble centurion as he also shared the stage with Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi for scoring the second highest number of international goals among the active players – 64 in 101 appearances for India. Interestingly, he now sits behind only Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (81) by the list of the highest active goalscorers in international football.

From dishing out appeals to his fellow landsmen off the field to showcasing laudable performances on the field, the 34-year-old is no stranger when it comes to racking up feats – his latest being the storm of splendid performances that he mustered and steered throughout the course of the Intercontinental Cup tournament. Backtracking, the Blue Tigers' captain, in the second edition of this four-nation tournament, went on to net eight goals in four starts and found himself notably superseding quite a few greats enlisted in world football such as David Villa, Clint Dempsey and Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic in terms of being the all-time highest goalscorers in the world before settling alongside, arguably, one of the greatest footballers of all time, Lionel Messi.

Raised in a soccer-savvy family, it didn't take Sunil long to develop an ardent passion for this crafty game. As the years advanced, so did his mastery with the ball and he made his first appearance in the blue jersey for the U-20 side with a 1-0 victory over the U-23 Pakistan team in the 2004 SAF games. While he scored his first ever goal for the senior India national team against the same opponents in 2005, it was during the 2007 Nehru cup victory – his first international tournament – and the 2008 SAFF Championship that he displayed the initial flashes of his present-day brilliance – although India lost in the finals to the Maldives in a 1-0 defeat.

Come the AFC Challenge Cup later that year, commendation regarding the striker started brewing when he scored a hat-trick against Tajikistan in the final to deliver India the cup, which also subsequently qualified India for the 2011 Asian Cup. However, the year 2011 was the one regrettably remembered for its ups and downs as India's run in the Asian Cup was hardly a memorable one. The Blue Tigers won none of their group stage matches needed to qualify for the knockout stage. Still, Chhetri led Indian scoring during their short-lived campaign with two goals. On December 11, 2011, Sunil Chhetri, nicknamed as 'Bhai', set a new record when he found the back of the net in the SAFF Championship's final making it seven goals in a single edition, eclipsing IM Vijayan's record of six goals in the 1997 edition. In the same year, he was also honoured with the prestigious Arjuna Award.

Tracing his professional and illustrious career, he embarked on his journey to greatness with Mohun Bagan in 2002. He then shifted to JCT (Jagjit Cotton and Textile Football Club), where he scored 21 goals in 48 games. He had also attracted interest from foreign clubs, over the course of time, as he expressed his desire to play abroad.This panned out with much speculation as he was linked with moves to several clubs such as Leeds United, Estoril Praia of Portugal, QPR (Queens Park Rangers) and Scottish side Celtic. But, unfortunately, a move to none of these clubs ultimately materialised until March 2010 – the impending script written in the stars played out and it was announced that Chhetri was on a trial with Kansas City Wizards – a Major Soccer League (MLS) club, where he also played in the pre-season games. As expected, he formally signed for the team to become only the third player from the subcontinent to go abroad.

The boy from Secunderabad, now the 34-year-old captain of the Indian football team, also popularly known by the sobriquet "Captain Fantastic'' plays for Bengaluru FC in the Indian Soccer League (ISL) and has savoured both his dream and chance of playing for the country and, in return, has chalked up many an accolade accredited wholly to his name.

The artful player is the winner of the 2007 Nehru Cup, 2009 Nehru Cup, 2012 Nehru Cup as well as the 2011 SAFF Championship. Not only this, he has also been named the AIFF player of the year four times in 2007, 2011, 2013 and 2014. Adding to this, with his recent successes over the past couple of years, he has achieved, namely – the Hero of the I-League in the 2016-17 season, Hero of the Indian Super League (ISL) for the 2017-18 campaign and inescapably: Hero of the Intercontinental Cup 2018.

He is, for the time being, both the most-capped player and the all-time top goalscorer for the Indian national team. Undeniably, then, Sunil Chhetri is one power-packed gem that India has produced on the global footballing map.

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