Over the years, Indian football has enjoyed a talismanic figure up front who would carry the team to victories with memorable goals and moments. If it was IM Vijayan back in the early 1990s, it was Bhaichung Bhutia who took over the mantle. When it was time for the Sikkimese Sniper to hang up his boots, Sunil Chhetri was waiting on the sidelines.
However, Chhetri who is India's all-time top scorer will turn 37 in August and yet, the national team continues to be over-reliant on him and the question of who will be his successor remains unanswered.
Against lower-ranked Bangladesh, it was the Bengaluru FC forward who made the difference with two goals. The two goals took his international tally to 74 which saw him surpass Lionel Messi and it also helped keep India's hopes alive to qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup.
Chhetri is now only behind Cristiano Ronaldo in the list of active international goalscorers in men's football. However, former India captain Bhutia feels that India continues to look to Chhetri for inspiration and not operate as a collective unit.
"As a team we've not been able to do much (as the national team). There are matches where Sunil has been able to single-handedly give you the result. I thought that apart from those two goals of Sunil, we had nothing to talk about (against Bangladesh). Only Sunil and those two goals which he scored. I think we need as a team to really start delivering as well," the veteran said during a virtual media interaction on Tuesday.
The 44-year-old will be seen in a panelist's role for the upcoming Euros and he likened Sunil's situation to that of Poland's Robert Lewandowski.
The Bayern Munich forward is one of the finest strikers in world football but the rest of the squad are largely unknown except a few like Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny.
"It's a very similar example of Lewandowski with Chhetri. For Poland again, you have one of the best strikers in the world but he's gonna have limited opportunities to progress with his team and it's the same with India as well," said Bhutia.
The former Mohun Bagan and East Bengal forward went on to praise Chhetri for his longevity and said that the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lewandowski and the current Indian captain are able to play at the top level thanks to the support system around them and by avoiding major injuries.
"If you look at Sunil Chhetri and his career, he's never had a major surgery or any ligament or a cartilage tear either. He's had small-small injuries which were not major ones. So that way, I think if you are lucky you are not injured and not had a major surgery, then you keep yourself fit and you can go on to play longer. In India now, if you look at the players playing in ISL, the kind of facilities, the kind of support system they have. Just the ground conditions they get to play in, that itself is a big difference. I've played in grounds where you can't even walk your dog. We played some major tournaments in those conditions," he said while suggesting that things have changed drastically.
Watch UEFA EURO 2020 - LIVE on Sony Ten 2 (English) & Sony Ten 4 (Tamil & Telugu) channels from 11th June 2021