Interview: Sunil Chhetri on his achievement and future of Indian football

Meet Mr Keshav Bansal. This Gujarat Lions co-owner wanted to throw light on Sunil Chhetri’s achievement in Indian football but ended up tweeting—“Let’s take a moment to talk about @chetrisunil11, the Indian footballer who has been ranked 4th in the world for scoring the highest runs.”— which of course he later deleted. Well that is Indian football or sports in general.

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It may be recalled here that India beat Kyrgyzstan 1-0 in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifier in Bangalore on June 13 as Chhetri was on target for India. The skipper produced a brilliant goal in the 69th minute to hand his side a win. In the process he also surpassed Rooney by solitary goal to sit in the fourth position after Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Clint Dempsey in the list of active international players with most goals. This was Chhetri’s 54th goal for India.

To emerge as the fourth highest goal scorer for a country in such hostile environment calls for a celebration. If Sunil was a cricketer the BCCI would have lauded him, four sponsors would have come to sign him up, agents would have lined up to handle his profile and a few state honours would have looked in order. But nothing has happened. And Sunil goes about his life like nothing happened and still worrying for Indian football and its future.

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“ I’ve said this before and will say it now, we need to keep playing better teams than us consistently and regularly if we are to improve as a football nation. It felt great to come up against a top side like Kyrgyz Republic and go on to win the game. It was a very tough game but it was one that got the team to fight like a unit considering the quality we were up against. The more you do something, the better you get at it,” Sunil said about playing better teams in context of the victory and the goal.

By the way Sunil never thought of taking up football. For him playing India U-17 was a ticket to St Stephen’s to pursue higher studies, until he got a call from Mohun Bagan. And now a decade and half later, for someone who has played in three continents, read Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer, Sporting Clube de Portugal in Primiera Liga and of course India, Chhetri is still as grounded as a banyan, “I’ve never made much about records or these elite leagues. It’s nice to be part of a select bunch or to get an accolade that recognizes something you’ve done, but I leave it at that. You’re only as good as your last game. I’ve never played for records and it’s worked perfectly for me.”

“I’m still playing my football and I’d like to believe the highest point is yet to come. But there have been good memories. The Nehru Cup triumphs were special as was reaching the AFC Cup final with Bengaluru FC last year. To be honest, there is a lot to recall and be grateful about,” Sunil continued dispassionately.

When I first saw Sunil at Mohun Bagan, I was a part of a gaggle of sports reporters doing football beat. We were discussing about this slender short boy and whether he had the gumption of matching the big bodied Africans that lay seize of the big three clubs here. But he proved us all wrong to chart a path so beautiful so fragrant that as a reporter a decade later when I sit to write this piece I feel privileged to know this humble soft spoken marksman for whom finding the bull’s eye is just part of life.

sunil 4Sunil gets a premonition that he would score every time he dropped something accidentally before a match. I don’t know if he had any such moment before the Kyrgyz match, but he is as sure footed as one can be when he talk about the future of Indian football: “We are a fair distance away from coming close to or matching the fanaticism that leagues across the football-mad countries in the world enjoy but we have made remarkable progress on that front. Fans are always discussing games, and turning up in big numbers on match days and that’s fantastic to see. Big games are always trending on social media platforms and that just shows how everyone is slowly but surely turning their attention to club and national football in India.”  

I recently heard that a football fan in Bangalore has tattooed ‘SC11’ (Sunil Chhetri 11) on his body. Yes, not CR7 or LM9. Well he deserves at least this much adulation in a country of cricket lovers where football is the mango people’s way of life.

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