The man of the hour, the “bhai” of Indian football, Captain Fantastic. Anything said about football legend Sunil Chhetri would not come close to the actual legacy the man beholds and propels upwards each passing day. Every Indian with access to the internet or television is no stranger to the man’s charisma and enigmatic skills. The captain who filled an entire stadium with just a video. Not many football players have that kind of accolade to their names. Yet, how many of us know the complete story of the man who managed to breathe back life into a game dying of negligence and ignorance in a disinterested nation? Safe to say, not many. So let’s take a peek into our captain’s life and see what led him to where he is right now.
Chhetri in Intercontinental Cup, Image source: https://bit.ly/2tQeG9M
Born in Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh on 3 August, 1984, football ran in Chhetri’s family as his father, Kharga Chhetri played football for the Indian Army and his mother, Sushila Chhetri played for the Nepal’s Women National Team along with her twin sisters. So the football maestro was introduced to the game right from the early days of his life. As the saying goes, the apple did not fall far from the tree and he took his family’s fervour for football a step further, deciding to pursue it professionally.
Chhetri with his sister. Image source:https://starsunfolded.com/sunil-chhetri/
The football odyssey began for Chhetri in 2001 when the nation came calling. The Asian Schools Championship was being held in Malaysia and Chhetri was presented with an opportunity to play for the country. Though he had taken admission in Asutosh College of Kolkata, Chhetri decided that football was the passion he wanted to pursue and, between his beloved ballgame and higher education, he chose the former. Today, the entire nation, even the world, is witness to this rock-ribbed man’s brilliance and his fans are thankful he let nothing come in the way of his passion, not even formal education.
Asutosh College. Image source:http://www.asutoshcollege.in/images/
Chhetri began his professional football career with City F.C. of New Delhi but his big break arrived when India’s oldest football club, Mohun Bagan decided he should hop onto their wagon in 2002.
In a not-so-stellar performance, he scored just eight goals in total for the club spanning across three seasons from 2002-2005. During this time, in 2004, he also donned the blue jersey for the first time, for the Indian U-20 team against Pakistan in the 2004 South Asia Games. He was then signed on by Jagatjit Cotton and Textile F.C. (JCT) for the 2005-06 season. He went onto score a whopping eleven goals in total in the 2006-07 season, a remarkable feat for an up and coming player. His career took flight and in the very first season of the I-League, Chhetri had a massive seven goal streak to his name which was very eventful in helping his club, JCT F.C. finish in third place. Now that he was at the peak of his form, the stream of awards started pouring in, beginning with him winning the All India Football Federation (AIFF) Player of the Year Award in 2007.
Chhetri for Dempo. Image source:https://bit.ly/2ICL9pn
In 2008, Chhetri signed with I-League side East Bengal and scored in his debut match for them against Chirag United as East Bengal won the match 3-1 and went on to play in the semi-finals of the I-League. Upon being released by East Bengal, he was signed on by another I-League side, Dempo SC. Always a dreamer, Chhetri’s dearest ambition was to play for a foreign club and his contract with Dempo was proof of it. The contract had a special clause that allowed him to leave for foreign trials in the future if an opportunity ever surfaced. As if right on cue, in 2009, the grapevine was ripe with rumours of Chhetri sparking the interest of Scottish Premier League side Celtic but unfortunately a trial or move could never see the light of day. In a matter of months, there was another report of him being signed by Lakshmi Mittal’s Queen’s Park Rangers but luck evaded him this time too. He was denied a work permit by the British government owing to India’s then FIFA rankings. Never a quitter, he did not lose hope and issued a positive statement saying, “…it’s not the end of the world. I will continue working hard for my country and my club who have been very supportive.”
Chhetri for Kansas City Wizards. Image source:https://bit.ly/2Kg55UV
Lady luck finally came knocking on his door when he signed on for Major League Soccer (MLS) side Kansas City Wizards, becoming the third Indian, after Mohammed Salim and Bhaichung Bhutia to play for a foreign club. His most iconic appearance with the club was in an international friendly against Manchester United as Kansas City won the match 2-1. Unfortunately, he could not complete his stay with the Wizards and had to come back to India due to commitments to the national team.
Chhetri for Sporting Lisbon. Image source: https://bit.ly/2MxBjYs
Back on home ground, Chirag United snatched Chhetri up for the 2010-11 I-League season, beating United Sikkim to it. Not in the best of his forms, he could not make a significant contribution as his club finished at 8th place.
In 2012, Chhetri signed a two-year contract with another foreign club, Sporting Clube de Portugal and was to play with the reserve team. He made his debut for the club in a Segunda Liga match which the club ended up winning against S.C. Freamunde 2-0. In 2013, for the I-League season, Chhetri was loaned out to Churchill Brothers in order to get more playing time and helped them bag their second I-League title.
Chhetri for Bengaluru F.C.) . Image source:https://bit.ly/2tGiBH5
In 2013, following his release from Sporting Clube de Portugal, Chhetri signed with I-League debutantes Bengaluru F.C. who he then led onto win the season.
In 2014, the AIFF launched the Indian Super League. Though Bengaluru F.C. was not a part of the inaugural season in 2014, they commenced playing in the league from 2015 with Chhetri himself having an illustrious ISL career. In the 2015, he was picked up by Mumbai City F.C. for a whopping 1.2 crores, making him the costliest Indian player at the auctions.
From the 1st match against Pakistan in the 2004 South Asian Games to the 100th one in Mumbai against Kenya in the Intercontinental Cup, “Captain Fantastic” has come a long and arduous way. He’s won many a matches and bagged many a titles to his name like the prestigious Arjuna Award, the SAFF Championship Player of the Tournament and the AIFF Player of the Year which he was crowned four times.
Bringing pride to the nation seems to be a very easy task for this man who’s now just behind Cristiano Ronaldo and at par, on second position with Lionel Messi in the list of “Top Most Active Goal-scorers in Football” and he has already crossed the 100 matches mark. What’s even better is that he’s showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. So here’s to our own home-grown “Tiger in Blue”. Slay them all, Captain!