Remarkable that this short-statured striker now stands fifth overall in the all-time list of international scorers, ahead of even that incomparable Pele!
The national sports awards ceremony held recently provided a glimpse of the sporting champions of the current times. The Tokyo Olympics came in handy for many to gain recognition, none more than that Army Officer Neeraj Chopra, top rate javelin thrower and the first Indian to win a gold medal in the athletics event of the Olympics. Neeraj is deservedly a household name and continues to remind us of his achievement through various forums not the least being in advertisements! And it will go on for that is the magnitude of his Olympic effort. Indeed, every award winner has his or her tale of high deeds and that is where one certainly wishes to bring up the name of Sunil Chhetri, the Indian football captain and the first Indian footballer to win the Major Dhyanchand Khel Ratna Award. What brings up a special interest in him is that Chhetri's achievement has come in a sport that in India has hardly been shining, at best been just mediocre. Yes, it is easy to point out the SAFF Championship title win in October this year and claim that was another international title win to be noticed. Without belittling that win, it must still be mentioned that a competition among the regional nations, all of them much below to India in FIFA rankings, in the subcontinent, this event hardly musters more than a passing reference.
Even here, the SAFF Championship. which was launched in 1993 and was once considered to be not much challenging for India against nations like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Maldives and Nepal, but did not always turn out to be that way. From an overwhelmingly dominating stance initially, India's hold slackened as years passed. The latest edition in Maldives provided a sample of how the other nations had come up even as India struggled to make it a winning finish for its eighth title-win overall. One key reason for that win was the way Chhetri came into the limelight. This has been the trait of this highly skilled man. It has been Chhetri's consistency that has been the hallmark of the goal-scoring moments, more than big wins in Indian football for some time now at the international level.
Not surprising then that this 37-year old remains the face of Indian football and what is more with 80 international goals in 125 appearances, he stands alongside none other than Lionel Messi, the Argentinian legend in terms of the number of goals scored for the country among current active players. Only another legend Cristiano Ronaldo with over 100 hundred goals lies ahead. Remarkable that this short-statured striker now stands fifth overall in the all-time list of international scorers, ahead of even that incomparable Pele!
What makes Chhetri so special is the way he has sustained himself ever since his international debut in 2004. He had not come into a sport that was thriving like in the decades earlier. But if it was a huge ask for him to take over from I M Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia, the stars of the nineties, then he did it with aplomb. Indeed, critics say India's best phase in the sport had long ended after the sixties or perhaps early seventies. The 1951 and 1962 Asian Games gold wins had put India among the best in Asia and perhaps even made the world body FIFA believe that this was a giant set to perform.
The fourth place finish earlier in 1956 Melbourne Olympics was a revelation. Good times did not last and the giant refused to wake up. The arrival of Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia brought some cheer after a period of lull, added pep to India's general performance and for the first time in 1996, India's FIFA ranking rose to 94, its best till date. It was then Chhetri, the lone ranger thereafter. Someone who had done his bit, made his presence felt even in losing causes. Indeed, Chhetri did more. It was his fine touch that helped India win the 2008 Asian Challenger Cup and qualify for the first time in 27 years in the AFC Asian Cup for the 2011 edition. Eight years later India was again to play in the Asian Cup and it was Chhetri who made that possible with his match winners against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan in the qualifying phase. Scoring in crucial matches has been his forte.
The sad part however is that even his best efforts have provided only the occasional flashes in Indian football as a whole. And that is the irony for at 106 in FIFA ranking and 17th in Asia, football in India cannot be considered inspiring. But the hope is always on Chhetri. As long as he is there, this man brings some meaning to the Indian-play. Yet at 37 how long can it go? Still this genial man dreams of seeing India play in the World Cup, not the qualifiers alone as it is now.
In a recent online interview, the Indian captain felt that should FIFA get through with the plan to have the World Cup every two years, then countries like India would have more opportunities and that was a positive sign. This is the kind of positive outlook that pushes him ahead, makes the national team as a unit believe that nothing is impossible. From a humble beginning as a junior to become one of the finest strikers’ Indian football has produced, Chhetri has come a long way to become the shining gem of Indian football.