Now 36, Chhetri has been a part of the Indian football side for 16 years as his international debut had come June 12, 2005, against Pakistan.
He might be India’s greatest ever goalscorer and undoubtedly one of the best football players the nation has ever produced. After scoring a brace against Bangladesh on June 7, he surpassed Argentina legend Lionel Messi in terms of international goals scored. The person in question, of course, is current skipper of the Indian football team, Sunil Chhetri. It is outrageous to even think that the man who is third in the highest active international goalscorers list is an Indian. Chhetri has made that outrageous thought a reality and he has been proving himself for several years now.
Now 36, Chhetri has been a part of the Indian football side for more than one-and-a-half decade. His international debut had come on this day back in 2005. It was against arch-rivals Pakistan in the city of Quetta. The Indian side had travelled to play a three-match invitational series against Pakistan. Chhetri was a part of the starting lineup in the first of the three matches. At the time, the team was captained by Shanmugam Venkatesh, who is currently the national side’s assistant coach. The head coach back in 2005 was Dronacharya awardee Sukhwinder Singh.
The match against Pakistan was not anything spectacular. Both sides had to settle for a 1-1 draw. What was important is that despite it being Chhetri’s first match for the country, there were more than enough glimpses of his undeniable quality. It was evident that Sunil would go on to become a massive player for the nation. Also, he was the one who scored India’s only goal in the match. The rest, as they say, is history.
Chhetri’s club career has been one of huge proportions, considering that he is an Indian footballer. Within seven years of his professional debut in 2002, he had already played for India’s two biggest football clubs, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. He scored eight goals in 18 appearances for the Mariners, and nine goals in 14 appearances for the Red and Gold Brigade. The first club where he started to really come into his own, however, was Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Football Club (JCT FC). He scored 21 goals in 48 appearances for the Punjab-based club from 2005-2008, before he joined East Bengal.
Chhetri was bought by Major League Soccer (MLS) side Kansas City Wizards in 2010, which is an incredible feat for an Indian footballer. However, he did not play a single competitive game for the American side. He did, however, come off the bench to play against the mighty Manchester United, who were managed by the great Sir Alex Ferguson at the time.
It was not, however, that was interested in the Indian’s services. Legendary Portuguese side Sporting Clube de Portugal, also known as Sporting Lisbon, bought the Indian, although he was only part of their B team. He made five appearances for the side but failed to score a goal.
Undoubtedly, Sunil Chhetri’s one club where he has flourished like no other is Bengaluru FC. Chhetri has won countless titles with the club and he is the current skipper of the club. In his first run, he scored 16 goals in 43 appearances. He was then sent on loan to Bengaluru FC by Mumbai City FC in 2015. There, Chhetri scored five goals in 14 appearances. Shortly afterward, he signed a permanent deal with the club and has scored 47 goals in 93 appearances till now.
When it comes to international football, Sunil Chhetri’s career is perhaps even more outstanding. His first major tournament with his nation was the 2007 Nehru Cup. Chhetri had managed to score twice in India’s opening match against Cambodia, in a 6-0 victory. He then scored one goal each in a 2-3 defeat to Syria, and a 3-0 win against Kyrgyzstan. He also had a part to play in India’s solitary goal in the final of the competition against Syria, handing them the trophy. In other words, he won his first international competition and scored four goals in the tournament.
He has won a total of eight titles with India. These are the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, the 2011 and 2015 SAFF Championship, the 2007, 2009, and 2012 Nehru Cup, and the 2017 and 2018 Intercontinental Cup. He also managed to become India’s highest ever goalscorer, scoring in every single year, barring 2006, since his debut in 2005. His best year so far has been 2011, when he scored 13 goals in 17 appearances. For the national side, he has scored an outstanding 74 goals in 117 appearances, and there are a lot more yet to come.
Apart from being a world-class football player, Sunil Chhetri is a man of the people. Football fans across the country have unparalleled respect for the 36-year-old, who only seems to be getting better with age. For the current generation of football fans, Chhetri is like the equivalent of a PK Banerjee, a Chuni Goswami, or a Bhaichung Bhutia.
One of the best things about him is when he speaks to the fans, the fans listen. Back during the 2018 Intercontinental Cup, India opened their tournament with a 5-1 win against Chinese Taipei, a game in which Sunil Chhetri had scored a hattrick. Unfortunately, there were only a few fans to witness it. The striker made an emotional video on social media, asking fans to come to stadiums and support the Indian football team. The striker was not disappointed as the Mumbai Football Arena was rocking with thousands of Indian supporters at India’s next game against Kenya. Sunil scored a brace and India had treated their faithful to a thumping 3-0 win. Eventually, they went on to win the whole competition.
Chhetri might still be playing at the level that he always sued to, but his future with the Indian national side cannot possibly go on for much longer. Perhaps the current FIFA World Cup qualifiers will be his last competition, should India not qualify for the AFC Championship. Either way, whenever he decides to hang up his boots, the footballing fraternity in the country will be sure to give him a massive, well-deserved send-off.