Sunil Chhetri | PTI
When Costa Rica earned the right to fill in the final slot in the 32-team list of qualifiers for the World Cup 2022 in Doha later this year, there was this diehard Indian fan wondering when he would ever see the name India in this list! Great to dream but as of now a bit farfetched. For, that is the state of Indian football in a way, the latest run in the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers notwithstanding. True, it was a touch positive with Igor Stimac, the head coach, able to earn some satisfaction from the streak of three wins the Indian team achieved while qualifying for the next year’s edition in style. This is but just a start. The road ahead is what matters. As Stimac had himself lamented in a leading daily recently, the football developments in India are such that the country was “eight to ten years behind the top eight Asian countries.”
Difficult times then, but in the overall darkness that seems to engulf Indian football, what still inspires or provides little light of hope can be the individual flashes of brilliance and here none can be more forthright in announcing his presence than yes, Sunil Chhetri. He is the fulcrum of the side, the golden leg which seldom fails to deliver. In the Asian qualifiers, for instance, Chhetri was the true leader in every sense. He led by example, and as the striker was there to do the final act with aplomb. Be it a header or finding space and angle to beat a jungle of legs ahead, he would find the mark. Nothing new to him, but how it transforms the side is what Stimac watched with happiness and concern. Happiness because a mission had been accomplished and concern because of the over-dependence on Chhetri.This experienced Coach knows the need of the team is to find ways to score more goals forgetting the presence of Chhetri. Can that come about? Because that is how influential Chhetri is and has been ever since he took the lead role.
Remarkable is the only word to describe Chhetri. At 37 and perhaps time running out in his career, this pint-sized dynamite has been an outstanding performer whenever he had entered the field. Injuries do bog him down as they did recently, but once back in national colours like the recent outing proved, his enthusiasm craves applause. Scoring in each of the three matches _Cambodia, Afghanistan and Hong Kong_ the veteran showed why he extracts that extra space in the media. And why not, with 84 goals to his credit, he has now equalled Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas’ tally in the all-time list of scorers for their respective countries. Chhetri stands fifth on this list, just two rungs behind the Argentinian great Lionel Messi. Not just that, the Indian star is now third behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi in the highest active international scorers list! When have we seen an Indian player’s name placed alongside football’s greatest as Chhetri’s now? That a popular English Premier League club, Tottenham Hotspur, chose to congratulate him on this achievement spoke of the standing of this Indian ace!
Indian football history tells us that the period till the sixties has seen some golden chapters. A visit to the Olympic semi-final once and then being Asian Games Champions were truly the high points. Some of the best football talents served India at that point. Every era, it must be said, did bring a new hero upfront. If not too far in the past, it was I M Vijayan and then Bhaichung Bhutia who were to get rave attention, then from early 2000, the focus was truly earned by Chhetri. For 17 years, he has been the talking point in football circles, and his achievements speak for that. Whether it was the Nehru Cup triumphs or the SAFF championship victories, Chhetri’s mark of a great performer was very much there. He was also the key player in India qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup for the first time in 27 years. With achievements came national recognitions, the latest being the Khel Ratna Award last year, the first Indian footballer to receive this distinction.
Dedication and passion for the sport have been Chhetri’s driving forces. Rarely does he have an off day on the pitch but then not always does his heroics end up in seeing his team win ultimately. That is his greatest disappointment, unable to propel the country’s football fortunes as much as the sport has done to his career or abilities. All this has not bogged him down one bit, as he himself admits that he wished to be remembered as somebody who had given his best for the country. His true impact will be known only when he finally bows out of the game, and that will not be too far away. It is his belief that the current national team had enough young players who could rise to become superstars. May his wish come true!
Chhetri’s attachment to the sport is such that it is unlikely he would fade away from Indian football. Very articulate he has been a regular on TV discussions and an expert on important international fixtures. Hopefully, World Cup 2022 could make him more visible to football fans in India with his analysis on television. But meanwhile, let’s hope he continues to delight with what he does most _scoring goals_ and inch further ahead in the all-time list of scorers. There isn’t a greater pride for India in the field of football.