To fully appreciate Sunil Chhetri, one needs to make their way to the Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru where he has starred many times for both club and country. If you are sat in the East Lower-A or West Platinum-A stands, the player is within touching distance in his usual role on the left flank, a move partly necessitated by his advancing years. Sometimes, we forget that India’s best player by far is almost 34 years old. That could be both an indictment of those coming through the ranks or a testament to the skills of Captain Fantastic, as he is popularly called in these parts.
He may have lost some of the pace from his youth, playing off target men like Miku and Jeje Lalpekhlua in recent years, but every other facet of his play has only been enhanced. His game intelligence is second to none and it is an education to watch him at close quarters, making runs or peeling off defenders into space at just the right time.
In a stadium, and especially playing for India, the gulf in class between him and his teammates become very apparent. Even today, he just seems to have that extra second to make a pass or score a goal with a precision that even the great stalwarts of Indian football never possessed. There is no doubt that his stints abroad helped, no matter how short they were or who they were with. He had blink-and-you-miss-it appearances at Kansas City Wizards but those few months at Sporting Lisbon’s reserve team would have added so much to his repertoire.
But there’s also more to the make up of the man that sets him apart from other Indian footballers. He has always been a confident player, no matter who the opposition is. There are videos on YouTube of his appearance for Kansas City against Manchester United in 2010. He comes on as a substitute for the last quarter of the game and while it was by no means a memorable performance, he makes his presence felt in a brief three minute spell involving Paul Scholes and Fabio, even enjoying a sharp exchange with Scholes for a bit.
Unlike his illustrious predecessors (except Bhutia), he wanted to broaden his horizons and learn his trade in better leagues. When he signed with Dempo in 2009, he insisted on a clause in his contract that would allow him to leave for trials abroad. He is a modern day footballer in the true sense, aware of the importance of his off-field work. He courts the public, media and commercial opportunities, living upto a carefully cultivated brand image.
It is on the field however that he is indispensable still. He has moments of world class quality comparable with anything the rest of the world has to offer. A left footed curling effort from the edge of the box to beat a wonderful goalkeeper in Ali Al Habsi had the Kanteerava in raptures during a World Cup qualifier in 2015.
But as he said so himself in that impassionate video that went viral a few weeks back, Indian football is nowhere near where it should be. Moments of world class quality will not suffice, we need bucketloads of it to make the step up. As another World Cup comes to a close tonight, being a part of one has to be the ultimate dream.
Chhetri’s presence and quality has improved those around him and they will continue to learn. Young players like Anirudh Thapa and Ashique Kuruniyan are at a higher level than those who used to break through in the past. One day we will look back at this time and realise that this is about when things started to change for the better. And that it was Sunil Chhetri who took the first step towards being world class.
Image Credit – Dany Mathew