CHENNAI: Fifteen years of international football! It’s not something every footballer gets to boast of when he or she calls it a day.
For Sunil Chhetri, that landmark may have been somewhat soured by the fact that India is unlikely to play much football in 2020. Nevertheless, the break brought on due to the coronavirus outbreak has given him some time to look back on his career and reflect on all that he has achieved.
Ever since he donned the blue shirt in 2005, Chhetri has been pivotal for the Indian team. When he first emerged, he was hailed as a talent capable of taking the baton from ageing Bhaichung Bhutia. Now, at a couple of months short of 36, Chhetri still retains that baton and is going stronger than ever.
Indeed his greatest achievement, according to the Indian captain himself, is that he has been able to play at this level for so long.
“I think I have a few good years left. If I have to pinpoint one achievement, it will be sustaining this (for 15 years),” he said in an interaction organised by the All India Football Federation.
Chhetri grew up idolising the likes of IM Vijayan and Krishanu Dey. But it was Bhutia who donned the role of inspirer-cum-mentor.
“I think I was in class nine or ten when I went to watch the Durand Cup to watch him (Bhutia) play. My first day at Mohun Bagan, he told me ‘I’ve heard about you, kid’. Idolising somebody and then getting the opportunity to play alongside that person is massive.”
Along the way, Chhetri emulated Bhutia by making a move abroad, first to Kansas City Wizards and then to the B team of Sporting Lisbon.
It was during these international stints that he picked up a lot of the fitness routines that have enabled him to keep going for so long.
Despite an obvious successor not being in sight, Chhetri has high hopes for Indian football’s immediate future. He has witnessed first-hand what playing in a World Cup did for the country’s U17 team and is hopeful that the upcoming U17 Women’s World Cup will have the same effect for the girls.
“We already saw what it did to the country, hosting the U17 World Cup,” he said. “One of the boys is already in my team and he’s so confident. It’s because of how they had so much exposure. They were playing the next Neymars and the next Messis. And I’m sure the same thing will happen to the girls. We have to keep getting these tournaments.”