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Ever–present Sunil Chhetri, Quite Literally Leads by Example

In the last 13 years, the one thing that has stayed constant with the Indian football team has been Sunil Chhetri. The forward has been a central figure to not only how the team has been built, but also to some of the happier moments, and some hard times.

Abhimanyu Sen | News18 Sports

Updated:June 5, 2018, 3:40 PM IST

Ten minutes into the second half against Kenya in Mumbai; Indian captain Sunil Chhetri stood unmarked ready to fire as the ball came in from the left flank, but the timing for once deserted him. The number 11 was disgusted and frustrated with himself.

Minutes before the final whistle, with the contest safely in the bag the skipper sprinted through the centre to pick up a pass, in extremely difficult ground conditions, before calmly dinking it over an on-rushing Kenyan goal-keeper. India won 3-0 on a day that will be well remembered in Indian football folklore.

An evening that began with thunder and rain ended with the thunderous Viking clap as Sunil Chhetri continued to do what he does best whilst also becoming the only Indian footballer to play a 100 senior games for his country.

Well known for putting the needs of the many before his own, India’s most prolific footballer admits that realisation struck when only after he had a conversation with his mother, a former footballer for Nepal herself.

The expected pressure of the moment was visible when he stepped up take controversial penalty and the relief in his trademark celebration, muted acknowledgement of the love showered on him. The plan had always been to stick to the plan – score, don’t celebrate wildly and take your team to victory.

Like one would expect to be the case, Chhetri, by his own admission did not think of playing as much as he has done for India. The dream of wearing the blue for India had turned to reality in 2005 in Quetta against Pakistan, and the icing on the cake was a goal on debut. The manner of celebration then may not have gone down as well as his plea to the fans in today’s day and age. The young man’s joy knew no bounds as he ran over to the Pakistani supporters to celebrate.

In the last 13 years, the one thing that has stayed constant with the Indian football team has been Sunil Chhetri. The forward has been a central figure to not only how the team has been built, but also to some of the happier moments, and some hard times.

Armed with the habit of scoring key goals, the Bengaluru man made quite a splash with a hat-trick against Tajikistan to take India to their first Asia Cup appearance in over two decades in 2011. More than half a decade later, the present captain has once again been at the heart of India’s qualification campaign, pulling a rat out of the bag at almost the drop of a hat. Rarely has he had a bad day at work.

The ace forward enjoys the pressure cooker situations and some of his best performances, both at the national and domestic level, have seen him snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Disappointment in big tournaments has always been an area of massive concern for Indian football, be it the Asia Cup or the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Once again though, a constant silver lining has been the man who began his journey from the Durand Cup before Mohun Bagan swooped in and introduced him to the Kolkata Maidan.

The intensity and drive has remained the same with added responsibility and maturity in recent years which has brought out a mentoring side to his game. On more than a few occasions during the Kenya match the skipper would go out of his way to advise or direct. It is a regular feature not just during national team games, but also when with his beloved Bengaluru FC.

More importantly, Chhetri leads by example. His on-field exploits, professional ways of working are well documented, but however, it is that continued urge to be more effective than the last try has made him an inspirational figure.

Another side to him is his humility and the ease with which he connects with football fans in the country. From personally thanking those at the stadium after a game to being approachable easily for his fans, the captain sets an example on and off the field.

Recently married, Chhetri is the third highest scorer among active international footballers, behind the superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. It would wrong to not expect a change in that list sooner than later.

Indian football in the last decade and half is synonymous with Sunil Chhetri and to think, as he admits, he almost chose cricket over football.

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| Edited by: Abhimanyu Sen
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