You know your Captain, but do you know his STRUGGLES?

Miranic  |  Fanzine  |  2 Months Ago

“No award can make you a better player unless you strive to be one.”


10 years back he wouldn’t have believed the reality which sprang from a far-sighted dream. If getting adorned as ‘Asian Icon’ by AFC back in August 2018 on his birthday was icing on the cake, then being honoured as Padma Shri — the fourth highest civilian award in India, is definitely the cherry over the top, that adorns Indian national football team captain, Sunil Chhetri.


Earning his lifetime entry ticket amongst the cadre of Indian football greats namely Gostho Paul, Sailen Manna, PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami and Baichung Bhutia who have received the same civilian award, Chhetri has come a long way in his field of excellence. Though it looks all gold and glitter when you view it from the outside, not many people know how much of dedication accompanied by years of undeterred hard work made Sunil Chhetri an icon he is, for many aspiring footballers and his teammates.


The beginning of a dream


In a country obsessed with cricket, it’s very rare for most of the kids to find their family pushing and supporting them to choose the path less followed. Thankfully for Sunil, football existed in the DNA of his family, where his father has played the sport for Indian Army, while his mother and sisters have represented the national team of Nepal.


The 17-year-old boy kick-started his dream to become a professional footballer by enrolling into Delhi based club City FC for his youth career. Being in a nation where grassroots level football grooming doesn’t exist in any significant measures, a year’s time at City FC paved the way for his senior career. Teenager Chhetri went onto spending the next three seasons playing for Mohun Bagan where he got limited game time and just featured in 18 games for the club; whilst netting 8 goals in the process.


A move to JCT football club thereafter meant that Chhetri was aiming his flight high to garner interest from foreign clubs. His three-year stay at JCT saw him playing almost half a century games (48) and scoring 21 times for the club. Before leaving his second club, Sunil Chhetri’s performances for JCT and the national team earned him his first AIFF player of the year ­award in 2007. It was the same year where the striker won the Nehru Cup tournament with India and stood as the top scorer (4 goals) for the team in the competition.


Close and yet so far


With winter of 2008 linking Chhetri to English club Leeds United and Portuguese outfit Estoril, the rumour itself brought much freshness to Indian football as he would have become the third Indian to play overseas. Unfortunately, nothing concrete happened regarding those rumours and Sunil had to wait for two more years to become the third Indian footballer to sign for an overseas club.


Many remember Baichung Bhutia’s tenure at English club Bury FC where the former Indian striker spent 3 seasons; making him the first Indian to play in England. Similar could’ve been the fate of Chhetri, but his disappointment to miss out playing for Queens Park Rangers was all due to work permit rules which do not allow the players belonging to National sides that fall out of top 70 rankings of FIFA to ply a trade.


But that didn’t stop the Indian ace from giving trials abroad; eventually signing for MLS side Sporting KC in 2010. Though Chhetri’s tenure didn’t last long in the US due to national team commitment for AFC Asian Cup, he did play twice for the club he signed for.


 His 18 months of football since leaving Sporting KC observed his association with Chirag United and a yearly spell with his former club, Mohun Bagan. Agreement to play for Sporting CP B in Portugal saw Chhetri spend a half season there and remainder of it back on loan at Churchill Brothers.


Surely it’s quite an achievement that Sunil Chhetri made it this far, but the lack of game time overseas certainly tells that despite coming close enough he couldn’t taste the flavours of playing at much better establishment professionally. Nobody knew at this stage that Chhetri’s best days were yet to arrive.

Bengaluru beast rises


Since the establishment of Bengaluru FC, undoubtedly it’s Sunil Chhetri who has cemented his name in the club’s history as their most cherished player. 


As playing overseas presented issues every now and then, Chhetri kept his focus on where it felt right. Knotting himself to Bengaluru, the club captain has won the most trophies here than he has at any other club he has played for. Five trophies which comprise two league titles and three domestic cups witnessed Chhetri’s involvement in 74 goals from 152 games for the club; including current season stats.


Not only his involvement with Bengaluru is noteworthy, but Sunil’s performance for the national team is also quite sensational. India’s all-time leading ­goal scorer with 67 goals from 107 matches is currently second in the number of goals scored by active players in international matches; only Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more (85). The Indian skipper has earned 6 trophies for his country with three Nehru Cups, two SAFF Championships and an AFC Challenge Cup.  


Even though Chhetri’s age (34) could see him bid farewell to the game soon, we as fans would always wish for him to add more glory to his name as long as he is playing. The five-time AIFF player of the year winner’s determination and hard work is something one can take the light from and guide themselves in the right way. 


Upon knowledge of receiving the Padma Shri 2011, Arjuna Award Chhetri mentioned, "At the moment, it's just pure happiness. It hasn't sunk in as yet. I need some time to feel it. I need some time to understand what the recognition actually means. Every person has flaws, so do I. I understand it and strive to be a better version of myself — a better human being. I feel I need to set a better example to others.”


He further added: "It is also a reminder to me on what I need to do, all in my effort to improve every minute as a footballer."


There’s only so much to learn from the Indian football’s precious gem. Long live Captain Fantastic.


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