(Update: India defeated Kenya 2-0 in the final of the Hero Intercontinental Cup on Sunday with captain Sunil Chhetri scoring a brace. This takes the Indian captain’s goals tally for India to 64 in 102 appearances. He is now the joint-second highest international goal scorer among active players alongside Lionel Messi.)
Sunil Chhetri is the greatest Indian player of this generation. The numbers don’t lie—just a shade under a 100 appearances for the national team, he has scored a record 59 goals, which is a little more than a goal every second appearance. He joined legendary Spanish striker David Villa, as the joint third-highest active international goal scorer in football after his hattrick versus Chinese Taipei last Friday, and is only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Tonight he’ll become the first Indian footballer to play 100 matches for his national side.
Before Chhetri made his mark on the national arena, Baichung Bhutia was a household name. Today, Bhutia is backing Chhetri to shine at the 2019 Asia Cup (the Asian equivalent of the Euro). “He has done exceptionally well for his country and club,” Bhutia told PTI. Despite his small frame (5ft 7in), the striker has earned his place as a household name in Indian football.
While his club career, especially outside India, has gone through its share of ups and downs, Chettri has shown remarkable courage, guts and quality while playing for the national side.
Here are five memorable moments from his stint with the national team:
1) Debut versus Pakistan (June 12, 2005)
For any professional athlete, making their debut is a special moment. It is the culmination and celebration of all the blood, sweat and tears that an athlete has given for his craft, and only some can capture that feeling while representing their country. Chhetri made his national team debut versus Pakistan in the cauldron of Quetta and topped the moment off with his first goal, after which he ran towards the home crowd in celebration.
2) Scoring a hattrick and helping India qualify for the AFC Asian Cup (August 13, 2008)
In a stunning performance, India dismantled Tajikistan 4-1 to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup (Asia’s equivalent to the Euro or Copa America) for the first time in 27 years. Leading the charge for India in the national capital was Sunil Chettri, who scored a hattrick marked by a stunning left-foot drive from nearly 30 yards out. “They are not a team that loses 4-1, but we just played like we were possessed,” he told ESPN. That partnership up front with Baichung was irresistible.
(Source: India Football Home)
3) Winning 1-0 versus Kyrgyzstan in the AFC Asian Cup qualifier (June 13, 2017)
This match in Bengaluru was unique for three key reasons:
-The victory broke India into the top 100 of FIFA rankings. India is currently ranked 97th in the world.
-India qualified for the AFC Asian Cup for the fourth time in its history.
-Chhetri scored, what many believe, is his best goal in Indian colours.
As someone who watched the game live, it is the goal that stands out more than anything else. India’s game plan was clear—stifle the Kyrgyz attack and hit them with the counterattack. In the 69th minute, Chhetri picks up the ball from India’s defensive half, beats three players, passes the ball to his strike partner Jeje, receives a sumptuous pass in return, and finally delivers a sublime finish for the goal. It was a combination of speed, skill, athleticism, a presence of mind and supreme touch.
(Source: Sports and Entertainment)
4) AFC Asian Cup, January 2011
“When will India qualify for the World Cup?” is an oft-heard quip across various conversations. Before making any assertions on that front, it’s imperative that India make its mark in the continent.
The men in blue did not particularly have a great tournament in Doha, but it was a chance for them to acquaint themselves with the best in the continent. Pitted in a very tough group with South Korea, Bahrain and Australia, India lost all its group matches. What counted, however, was the experience, and Chhetri did manage to score two goals in the tournament against South Korea and Bahrain.
“Aside from that, it was a great experience. It’s like a World Cup for Asian teams. To qualify, go there and rub shoulders with the best was a great experience. I find it hard to choose just one game and getting a couple of goals there meant a huge thing for me personally,” he told ESPN.
5) Issuing a plea for support from Indian fans
It’s impossible to understate the passion Indian fans have for European football. But what about Indian football? What about the national team? The advent of the Indian Super League (ISL) has gotten Indian fans more invested in the domestic club game, but not many come to watch the national side.
As captain, leader and the face of Indian football, Sunil Chhetri made a heartfelt plea to Indian fans to come and watch the national side. Last Friday, there were less than 2000 people at the stadium where Chettri scored a hattrick. Such a dismal turnout for the Indian team playing the Hero Intercontinental Cup is frankly unacceptable, and his plea on Twitter touched the hearts of millions.
“Abuse us, criticise us, but please come to watch the Indian national team play,” he said. Thanks to his plea, which was supported by Indian cricket skipper Virat Kohli and legends like Sachin Tendulkar, the match between India and Kenya at the Mumbai Football Arena on Monday has been sold out.
This is what leaders are made of. Congratulations Sunil Chettri on your 100th appearance for India.
This is nothing but a small plea from me to you. Take out a little time and give me a listen. pic.twitter.com/fcOA3qPH8i
— Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) June 2, 2018
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)