Sunil Chhetri remembers a certain photograph, taken on a June evening in 2005. During breakfast in the morning, the national coach Sukhwinder Singh had announced that the then 20-year-old will be making his senior India debut later that day. Against Pakistan, at the Ayub Football Stadium in Quetta, Pakistan, Chhetri lined-up with the Indian national team for the first time. And a few minutes into the match he opened the scoring.
“I was so happy that I forgot we were playing in Pakistan because I went near the stands and started celebrating in front of the Pakistani fans,” he recalls. “There’s a very sad photograph where I’m doing this in front of the fans, and nobody on the team followed me.”
That was where the journey had begun for the captain. Since then the celebrations have grown less dramatic as the stats for goals scored have increased, he’s now the country’s highest goal-scorer with 59. But on Monday when Chhetri leads the Indian team against Kenya in their second match of the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai, almost 13 years since that night in Quetta, the 33-year-old will don the Indian colours for a 100th time. The milestone will make him only the second player after former skipper Baichung Bhutia to do so.
“I had a dream (to play for the national team),” he says. “But I never dreamt of playing 100 internationals. Honestly, I never think much about milestones, but it was only when I was having a chat with my mother the other night that she became a bit emotional. How big this was for her made me realise how big the occasion is.”
Chhettri, the constant
In the past 13 years the captain has been the only constant in the lineup that has undergone rapid transformation in the past few years. Prior to the 2018 World Cup qualifiers that began in 2015, the Indian team went through a transitional phase that saw the likes of Gouramangi Singh, Renedy Singh, Bhutia himself – the elder guard – making way for a new generation of players.
And as the national team under Stephen Constantine has begun preparation for the Asian Cup next January, the squad in Mumbai consists of 11 Under-23 players. Through one of those players though, 22-year-old Manvir Singh, Chhetri explains how the generational gap first hit him.
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The captain recalls his decision to sit and chat with the shy youngster when he first joined camp. In that conversation, Manvir asked Chhetri if he remembered playing against Punjab Police during his time at JCT Mills. “I told him that I did, and he replied, ‘mere Papa bhi khelte the aapke against,’” he says. “I was like, ‘mujhe boldiya hai, kisi aur ko bolna mat.’ Because of that I generally hate playing with the younger guys.”
Despite the younger, fresher players coming up in the squad, it’s still in the veteran that the team finds its leader. The work ethic is clear, and the responsibility of guiding the young team through thick situations during the qualifiers is incomparable – he scored four times on the way to India topping the Asian Cup third round qualifiers including winners against Myanmar and the Kyrgyz Republic.
And it’s through his own dedication to the sport that he hopes to inspire his young teammates. “I have understood that lectures don’t work,” he says. “Instead, I try to do it for myself so that the boys can follow. It gives me immense joy that Jeje (Lalpekhlua) who started in front of my eyes just the other day is now two games short of 50 International matches. The effort to improve yourself is the hallmark of the squad.”
The captain himself has been working on improving for the past 13 years. A day ago he posted a video on social media pleading the public to attend matches the national team plays in. A total of 2569 made their way to the Mumbai Football Arena to watch Chhetri bag a hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Chinese Taipei – his third international hat-trick.
In India, the fanfare that follows a century is unparalleled, albeit in a different sport. But Chhetri has steadily been approaching that number. On Monday, he will become India’s second centurion.
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