Tuesday, Oct 04, 2022
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Sunil Chhetri: India's 'Eternal Captain' Does It Again

India qualified for the AFC Asian Cup 2023. But Sunil Chhetri acknowledged that there were problems in Indian football.

Sunil Chhetri shares a special relationship with the fans, having been the Indian team’s messiah over the years.
Sunil Chhetri shares a special relationship with the fans, having been the Indian team’s messiah over the years. Courtesy: Twitter (@chetrisunil11)

Indian football exists in purgatory. Merely a month ago, the federation’s president Praful Patel was suspended by a Supreme Court bench. The team had just come off the back of a dire World Cup qualifying campaign, but had scraped through to have a chance for the Asian Cup. (More Football News)

As has been the case throughout much of the history of Indian football, the complaints were many and the same as they have been over the years. And there always seems to be a practised apathy among Indian fans of the sport.

But there is one man, who, time and time again, bridges this divide.

Praful Patel’s suspension coming just as the national team began its preparations for the Asian Cup qualifying could have upturned the very delicate boat that is Indian football. The situation was precarious. But the same man is unaffected by drama. So, 37-year-old Sunil Chhetri, the nation’s talismanic captain took to social media to appeal once again, to the fans to back the Blue Tigers. 

This was nothing new to him, Chhetri shares a special relationship with the fans, having been the team’s messiah over the years. Back in 2018, Chhetri similarly took to social media to share his emotional appeal with the fans to turn out and support the team. He acknowledged that there were problems, but insisted the way forward was only if the fans and the team came together.

It was an appeal that resonated across the nation, with Virat Kohli and many others amplifying Chhetri’s heartfelt message. The fans responded, and Mumbai’s stands were packed to the rafters, accompanied by electrifying chants of ‘Vande Mataram” from the nation’s steadfast fan group, the Blue Pilgrims.

So this was nothing new to Chhetri as he once again spoke to the camera. Chhetri’s relationship with the fans is special, because he has been everything they asked for, direct and uncompromising.

In his 2018 appeal, he even spoke about the elephant in the room; how most fans here follow their European and vastly popular English counterparts with far more attention and zeal. But by recognising this, and asking only that a little attention be re-directed to more local routes, along with the promise to deliver the entertainment the supporters craved. Which he did. Thus, Chhetri cemented his unique relationship with the supporters.

Chhetri was his usual honest and stoic persona, admitting the problems like the stale draw against Bangladesh in front of a full house in Kolkata, but he asked only for support, promising to justify it . And once again, the fans responded. Because to Indian football fans, they know when Chhetri asks, he delivers too.

More than 50,000 packed the Salt Lake stadium, braving the rains and shambolic organisation, answering their captain’s appeal. And yet again, the captain was as good as his promise, Chhetri delivered with sumptuous goals against each of India’s opponents, goals against Cambodia to ensure Asian Cup qualification, a stunning late free-kick against Afghanistan that enthralled the Salt Lake, and capped it off with a true forward’s exquisite control and finish against Hong Kong.

For the last one, he turned and looked for the block where the fan group the Blue Pilgrims sit, and pointed towards them. He knew who to thank for the electrifying journey, and the fans knew as well. For Captain Fantastic, the cheers were thunderous.

Chhetri rarely celebrates empathetically. The going joke has been that Chhetri celebrates so nonchalantly because his back is tired of carrying the national team. There is some element of truth to that.
 
Amidst the rains at the Salt Lake stadium, he walked off the field, exhausted, head down, but with the same stoutness and calmness of nature he has exuded over the years, as he has come to be India’s eternal captain, still the team’s saviour at 37.

Make no mistake, Indian football is in a dire situation. But when we talk about modern-day greats of the game, mention has to be made of Sunil Chhetri, who has dragged along his nation biting and kicking to levels they have seen far too rarely before. At almost every dark turn, Chhetri has been there. And in the good moments, the charismatic Delhi-raised boy has been the engineer. He has been the glue which has held together a fractured institution.

In the bad situations, Chhetri has been more than willing to shoulder the blame, despite very little of it being his. And in the good, Chhetri has been magnanimous in sharing credit. As India qualified for the Asian Cup, Chhetri took to Instagram to thank the fans once again, but also to point towards the bright young stars who are the nation’s future. Sahal Abdul Samad, the resident ball magician, Brandon Fernandes, Ishan Pandita and Anwar Ali among others. But it has been 37-year-old Sunil who provided the pathway for them to perform, and continues to lead the way.

Alongside other grizzled veterans, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and centre-back Sandesh Jhinghan, Chhetri has weathered the various storms and continued to keep the boat afloat. He has provided important goals, but most importantly, he has provided the leadership a fractured national team desperately needed.

Sunil Chhetri is 37 years old now, and cannot continue to cheat Father Time for too long. He will hang up boots soon on a long career, one not studded with much success to the outsider. But it has been a career of dogged persistence, the story of a serial winner as well as a journeyman footballer. He tried to make it outside, then came back and found domestic success and a new home with Bengaluru. But that story is separate.

Sunil Chhetri’s career will be remembered for the ease with which he stepped in to fill the giant shoes of Baichung Bhutia, and overshadowed him, going on to join the rarefied air in which Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo exist, among the top international goalscorer of all-time. But to put it like that is doing a disservice to the man.

Sunil Chhetri is so much more than that, the man who papered over every crack, and there were far too many. The captain who talked directly to the fans, and understood and executed every duty asked of him, as captain of a national side that never lived up to its’ promise. To be a talisman, especially for a side that rarely delivers is a task of enormous mental fortitude. History will remember that Chhetri was up to it.

II

As the afterglow of a glorious qualifying run in Kolkata dies out, the problems are still there. Igor Stimac, the head coach vented his frustrations at the AIFF, which is still under a Committee of Administrator’s jurisdiction over their violation of the National Sports Code. Stimac didn’t mince his words, asking the government to strongly back the national team if they want to continue performing. Contracts haven’t been discussed, a board doesn’t exist yet, so no one knows what is going to happen.

But if the government is considering backing the team now, and the fans have revived their interest, it is because Chhetri let us dream again. For the first time, India will go to back-to-back Asia Cups, and hopefully, Chhetri will become the first Indian to play in three Asian cups.

There are bright spots, stars in the making, and a team re-unifying. As we look to the future, we must remember who paved the path and thank him for the memories along the way. The euphoria of the rout against Thailand, resilient draws against the Asian champions, Qatar, and his countless goals at every turn and stage, which saved the team far too often.

Hopefully, we can mount a good challenge on the Asian stage when we return. It would be the most fitting way to give Sunil his last hurrah. And even then, it wouldn’t be enough to thank him for everything he has done.

The fact that we continue to dream is thanks to him, and that is the debt we can never repay to him in full. That will be Sunil’s legacy, whenever he does decide to call it a day, he let the sleeping giant dream peacefully. One day, it will awaken and some of that great debt we owe him can slowly start to be repaid.

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