12 June 2005, coach Sukhwinder Singh handed a debut to a 20-year-old boy Sunil Chhetri in Quetta, Pakistan, in place of the injured Bhaichung Bhutia. He responded with a goal. 15 years later he is the second-highest active goalscorer in football, 6-time AIFF player of the year and a Padmashri. We are, of course, talking about captain, leader and legend Sunil Chhetri.
Sunil Chhetri is the second Indian after Bhaichung Bhutia to have played International football for 15 long years. Remembering his journey during a Facebook live with Indian Football, Chhetri said,“I got the privilege of representing my country, looking back on my 15-year journey, I think the achievement is I have been consistent. There are so many people on the pitch off the pitch, my family, my friends who have worked hard for me to reach here.”
“IM Vijayan and Krishanu Dey were my favourite footballers when I just started playing because my mom used to watch them and she was a massive fan. When I started growing up in India, my favourite was Bhaichung Bhutia and abroad it was Ronaldo.”
Sunil Chhetri On Bhaichung Bhutia’s influence on his career
“I remember one of the initial talks with Bhaichung Bhai, I asked him once when I was in Mohun Bagan first year, he had just come back from Bury, I asked him how do you do it. He told me then that don’t worry, you will not even know when time passes and you will be there.”
“The influence of Bhaichung bhai has been immense. I was in class 9th or 10th we went to watch the Durand Cup and bhai (Bhaichung) was there and we just wanted to touch him but there were cops there and we weren’t allowed to go close to him. Two years later, I signed for Mohun Bagan and we got the news that bhai has also signed for Mohun Bagan.”
“The first day when Bhaichung bhai came and met me, the first thing he told me was ‘I have heard about you kid and you are doing well’ and if you ask all my family members and friends they know how much I sang this to them, that bhai came and bhai told me he has heard about me. From then to share the dressing room with him for the club and the country has been one of the best experience of my life.”
“Bhaichung and Renedy (Singh) taught me the importance of fitness, importance to stay grounded, the importance of extra training, I picked up a lot of things from them on the pitch and off the pitch.”
“I was loved the most, and I was shouted at the most. Once Samir (Naik) bhai tried to give a long ball to me, the ball went way beyond, I stopped and I shrugged showing that it wasn’t a good ball, he came running to me almost held my collar and said ‘If I pass you the ball good or bad you run, you don’t show me any tantrums, you just run’, I can never forget it.”
On never giving up during a match and the secret to Bengaluru FC‘s success
“Bob Houghton used to tell us ‘If you came out in a stretcher, make sure you are out for two months.’ When you are coming out you are leaving your team with 10 men for those 1 minute or 30 seconds and you will it’s shocking how many times we concede a goal in that time and that is the last thing you want to do.”, Chhetri added when Nilanjan Dutta told him he has never been carried off on a stretcher.
“One wonderful thing about Bengaluru FC is that everyone from our owners to the ball boys is in sync and everyone wants to improve. Also, people responsible for hiring have done an impressive job. A lot has been talked about performances on the pitch especially because of Ashley Westwood, Albert Roca and Carles Cuadrat but even off the pitch, the work they do is unbelievable. The team led by Kunal, Srini, all the girls and boys put in so much effort to connect with fans, all of them match the idea that the club has to improve every day. We might not win tomorrow, but that we want to win and we want to improve is synonymous. That is the beauty of BFC, and I am fortunate to be part of it.”
On his favourite goal and pre-match routine
When asked to pick his favorite between his away goal against Myanmar or his goal against the Kyrgyz Republic in 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, Sunil chose, “The away goal I scored against Myanmar because that gave us the confidence and set us up for the coming matches. That game we didn’t particularly play well, we were very defensive. We worked hard defensively, we didn’t have much going forward. 65th minute the flash a.k.a Udanta (Singh) came in and changed the game for us, because of him we scored the goal. If we didn’t get those three points and came back to India, we wouldn’t have the confidence of playing the way we did in the remaining 4 games.”
“I have got a very strict pre-match schedule, it’s boring, but it’s very to the point, what time I get up and then my breakfast, then the post-breakfast stretching and the nap, then the lunch and I like nothing going haywire. It’s a very calm day in the Chhetri household that day, that day is very particular.”