Sunil Chhetri has the special distinction of being only the second Indian footballer to complete 15 years of international football. Since making his debut against Pakistan in Quetta in 2005, Sunil Chhetri has gone on to play 115 matches for the Indian national team. The only other player to have represented India for over 15 years was the legendary Bhaichung Bhutia.
“The influence of Bhaichung bhai has been immense. I think I was in class nine or ten when we went to watch the Durand Cup and Bhaichung bhai was there. I really wanted to meet him then but I couldn’t. Two years later, I signed for Mohun Bagan and then we got the news that he had also signed for Mohun Bagan,” the Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri said during an interview on the official Indian Football Team Facebook page.
The six-time AIFF Player of the year has made 74 appearances in the Indian Super League (ISL) for Bengaluru FC, scoring 39 goals. He holds the national record for most international matches played and most number of goals scored but pointed out that he is raring to go on for a few more years.
"I don't want to put numbers. But I am enjoying my football and I am not going away anytime soon," the striker from Delhi said. "I told my wife that I am feeling so fit. I am going to challenge Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan for a sprint. Unless someone like Sahal Abdul Samad scores goals to push me away (from the national team), I am going to be there, playing for the team."
Chhetri scored on his debut for the Blue Tigers and went on to score 72 goals for the Indian national team. He is the second-highest international goal-scorer among active footballers, behind Portugal legend Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentine genius Lionel Messi. However, he ranks the away goal scored during an AFC Asian Cup qualifier against Myanmar in March 2017 as one of the best of his career.
“That goal gave us the confidence and set us up for the coming matches (of the AFC Asian Cup). That game, we weren’t playing particularly well. We were very defensive. We didn’t have much going forward. 66th minute, the Flash (Udanta Singh) comes in and changes the game for us. Because of him, we scored the goal. If we didn’t get those three points and come back to India, we would not have had the confidence of going and doing what we did in the remaining four games.”
“I think the goal would not have happened if not for Udanta. With both my and Jeje's patrols done, we were finished. If it wasn’t for Udanta, we would not have scored that goal,” the Talismanic striker added.
His undying dedication for the national team was on display for all of his fans during the interview, when the striker quipped that he would love to see Sandesh Jhingan going for a header, with probably Thapa crossing the ball, in a World Cup.
Adding to this, Chhetri showed his appreciation for defender Sandesh Jhingan, sharing a special message for him. “I hope you are recovering well. Till the time I’m there, we will keep working on our small secret while going to attack corners.”
Sunil Chhetri had a special message for the women’s national team as well, in lieu of the fact that they had directly qualified for the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, which is to be hosted in India. “The Asian Cup is a massive opportunity. I’m sure the players are excited. Everyone wants to be at that stage. I know that feeling when we play the Asia Cup, you play against Bahrain and UAE. That’s where a footballer wants to be,” he said.
“My advice is ‘girls, start training from now’. Because the last thing you want to feel after the tournament is, I wish I could have done more. I know there’s time, but start preparing from now. What happens once the tournament is finished; you always think about what you could have done. It’s a different level, and we will be playing against the best of Asia. So, make sure you leave no stone unturned when it comes to preparing yourself.”
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Dibyangshu Sarkar