An Ode to Sunil Chhetri : Captain, Leader, Legend
As the half-time whistle blew at the Al Nahyan Stadium, 11 white shirts went into the tunnel in grief, almost having ascertained the fact that an unlikely chance of a victory would disappear like a shimmering mirage.
Despite having threatened in the opening exchanges through a couple of surging runs from Ashique Kuruniyan, India managed to squander the early momentum to a more energetic Thailand outfit, who largely won the battle in midfield for the better part of the opening 45 minutes.
But every time the chances appear slim for the Blue Tigers, which is the case most of the time against opponents with bigger stature, the entire nation turns to the 5 ft. 5-inch talisman, who has probably defined the truest meaning of a protagonist in Indian football.
It is none other than Sunil Chhetri – Our captain, our leader, our legend.
Out of absolutely nowhere, India took the lead when the 34-year-old stepped up from the spot to slot home the opener. But Thailand clawed their way back into the fixture and went into the break with the larger share of momentum.
What right did India have to defeat the War Elephants after 33 long years? What right did Stephan Constantine have to mastermind a stellar second-half display that saw three beautiful goals? Against a formidable back line, what right did Chhetri have to dart forward willingly and wrap his side-foot around the ball, straight into the top corner, to give India the lead for the second time in the game?
Well, that’s what he does. Even during the darkest of days, on the worst pitches across the countryside and against the best of oppositions, the talisman has been the torch bearer, regardless of how concrete India’s stratagem is.
With his 66th and 67th goal in national colors, Chhetri surpassed Lionel Messi in the highest active international goalscorers’ list and is now only behind Cristiano Ronaldo. Now, there can be no comparisons drawn between Messi and Chhetri, but the latter’s importance to the team is unparalleled.
Every time India lost possession, every time the titanic frame of Sandesh Jhingan produced a clearance, every time a cross played in resulted into nothing, he was clapping, talking, instructing, cheering and what not!
Despite reported feuds with the coach that resulted in his captaincy being stripped off, the little Mozart has continued to spearhead the team and add a sense of cohesion on the pitch. Even without the armband, it was quite visible who the orchestrator was.
If these words don’t reveal the star man’s endowments and still do not instigate happy shivers down your shuddering spine, we can take out the abacus for you.
He has completed a whopping 235 appearances in his senior club career, whilst scoring an impressive 122 goals. For the national side, the sharpshooter has netted 67 in 105 appearances. This is more than half of Baichung Bhutia, the footballing icon on the country has for India.
For the first time 55 years, India had three different goal scorers in an AFC Asian Cup encounter. Chhetri’s Indian side, who arguably recorded their best ever victory in years to come, acquired 62 FIFA ELO ratings post-victory – a remarkable return, indeed. It’s the magic number 55 again – the number of years it took for India to register a victory in the Asian Cup.
And with the brace, can you guess who’s the highest Indian goal scorer in the tournament?
Sunil Chhetri, it is.
Almost every time we feel that as a half-decent side at times, India is far behind salvaging anything from the game, he steps up and pulls something out of thin air. Not a lot of players adapt to Constantine’s 4-2-2 configuration, an aspect that is often underlined when the Blue Tigers do not have the ball, but Sunil Chhetri doesn’t care. He just knows how to serve his nation, lift the spirits of the entire stadium and lead by example.
Who knew that the Blue Pilgrims would erupt sobbing and jumping at the same time? We were supposed to be happy with a ‘dirty’ 1-0 victory, but when you witnessed the scoreline, it takes no time to guess the man who led the charge.
We don’t know what’s in store for the Indians, but they are certainly making a nation dream.
Brace yourself because you have, at least once, seen one man carrying a nation of 1.33 billion in an arena that doesn’t know too much about India’s trickery with the football.
Moreover, words and adjectives can’t contemplate what Sunil Chhetri is to Indian football, just as how the West Block Blues at Kanteerava Stadium proudly fill the air around with the name of Chhetri, “We’ve got Chhetri, Sunil Chhetri, I just don’t think you understand.”