Thursday, June 13, 2024

Sunil Chhetri, metonymic expression of Indian football, hangs up boots for Blue Tigers

A day before yesterday, at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata, India took Kuwait on at the Asian qualifiers for ‘26 World Cup, a match ending in a no-score draw. This game carried more weight than that  it already has, which is bringing them one step closer to competing in the World Cup; a  goal despite its galvanising appeal, never been realised in the footballing history of the nation. The game certainly  had more to it, for it is the stage set for the last swan song of Sunil Chhetri, the longest serving skipper before he hung up the boots, donning the national kit to the grass field for the final time.

In the media brief, on the day prior, it was palpable how the narrative was weighing  down on him, Captain Fantastic adeptly swerved the attention back to the game in hand. A role he has learned to ace for the past 12 years in a career spanning 19 years in the national colours, since the baton was passed onto him when Baichung Bhutia, another legend, was hanging up his boots in 2012.

Representing India at the senior level Chhetri is capped 150 times, an incredible feat that only 40-odd players could pull off at the level of international football. He also ranks 4th in the stat of scoring for one’s country, for which reason he stays standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of the game’s greats; Messi, Puskas and Christiano. 

His debut for the blue tigers came against their South Asian rivals, Pakistan, in 2005 June at Quetta, at the age of 20; the sole goal for India coming off his boots in that match ending in a 1-1 draw. By the time he was an established player at the club level for Mohun Bagan in Kolkata and JCT FC in Punjab.

He quickly rose to prominence, for the keen eye he had for goals and his positional awareness, occupying the tight areas at the right time; he quite fitted the bill for a number 9 for years to come in the national team.

In 2008, his hat trick contribution in the final of AFC Challenge Cup saw the beating of Tajikistan, qualifying India, after a long spell of 24 years, for the 2011 Asian cup to be held in Qatar, under the stewardship of coach Bob Houghton.

Critics asperse that except for a few SAFF Cups and a qualification for 2011 and 2019 Asian cups, his career with the Blue Tigers has been nothing but a series of lacklustre display, if one is to discount his personal accolades for an achievement. It is under his captaincy that the Indian team twice reached the heights of ranking in the top 100 as per the FIFA record keepings, an incredible feat never reached since the turn of the millennium.

The talisman was instrumental in garnering support by reaching out to fans, who, on their part, heeded to his appeal, turning up in big numbers to the stadiums rallying behind the team. His actions off the pitch also helped in quickly cementing him as an icon.

He cut the figure  of a hardworking, family loving gentleman who can command leadership, keeping together a squad as heterogeneous as the Indian national team.

His appeal was truly Pan-Indian; he is of Nepali dissent, born in Andra (then), Delhi raised, a rookie in Kolkata, few seasons in Punjab before the national call up, intermittent stints at the clubs overseas, now a Bangalore denizen, a perfect embodiment of the diversifying reality of modern India.

Chhetri, a fine conversationalist who has a knack for engaging people and bringing them on board, is no less a figure whose clout will continue to inspire the generations to come. Nevertheless, he will continue to grace the turf, in the capacity of a Super league player as his focus is now shifted to Bengaluru Fc contending for the title in the coming season.

Muhammed Sahal is a student of Modern History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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