Growing up in India, you feel far removed from the World of football. There are no Indian footballers in any of Europe’s top divisions. Heavily followed European teams prefer to spend their summers in USA, Australia and China for monetary purposes. And of course, the national team never gets close to making the World Cup. While India might seem starved of footballing success and representation, there is one man who has been quietly revolutionizing Indian football.
That Sunil Chhetri free-kick, that helped India beat Afghanistan in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers.
(Abhijeet 3001, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
Sunil Chhetri, the Indian skipper, has helped turn the heads of football fans in India from Europe to their own country. In fact, he has turned heads worldwide for being the third highest active international goal scorer, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. While his prolific goal scoring record has put his country on the footballing map (and football on his country’s map) that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his contribution to Indian football.
Chhetri is the perfect role model. His football career has been a bumpy road, but he has faced every obstacle with a smile on his face. Standing at 5 feet 7 inches, he was almost always the shortest player on the pitch. However, that has not stopped him from scoring dozens of headers in crowded penalty areas – a testament to his strategic positioning and athleticism. Now at 38 years of age, he is often the oldest player on the pitch. Yet, he is among the fittest players in his team. Chhetri is also a great communicator and leader, which you will recognize instantaneously when you hear him speak. Despite all his achievements, he is humble – never throws a tantrum or overly lauds himself. He always recognizes and gives respect to everyone who has helped him reach where he is today. For a country working hard to rise up the international ranks, India could not have been luckier to have Chhetri at the helm. Even without all those goals, the presence he carries on the pitch and in front of the public boosts the hopes and dreams of everyone involved.
Chhetri’s career, as with many Indian footballers, started in the depths of an unstable, poorly marketed, and seemingly underground Indian first division. After a tryout, he signed with Mohun Bagan (one of India’s oldest and most renown football clubs), at the age of 17. In an interview, Chhetri said he expected to sign for the reserve team but was taken by pleasant surprise when he was asked to join the Mohun Bagan main team. During his first six years in the Indian top-flight, Chhetri scored 57 goals in 97 appearances. He also had good showings in the Santosh Trophy (a historic inter-state football tournament), which earned him a call up to the Indian team. His senior national team debut came in a friendly away to Pakistan, on 12th June 2005, where he scored India’s only goal in a 1 – 1 draw.
Following all this success in India, Chhetri began to generate foreign interest. He was recommended by then national team coach Bob Houghton to several English clubs. The development of a move to Leeds United, who were in the English third tier at the time, was reported by The Telegraph, however that did not materialize. Estoril Praia, then in the Portuguese second division, were also keen to sign Chhetri but that too fell through.
In the middle of the 2008-09 season, MLS clubs like DC United came calling but Chhetri chose to go to England once again and trial with Championship side Coventry City. After the trial however, the West Midlands side decided not to pursue their interest in Chhetri.
Chhetri came back to India and finished out the season with East Bengal – scoring 13 goals in 26 appearances. In August of 2009, it was reported that Scottish giants Glasgow Celtic was linked to a move for Chhetri. However, later that month the Hindustan Times announced that Chhetri had signed a three-year contract with English Championship side Queens Park Rangers. This time Chhetri was denied the opportunity to play in England due to work permit complications. At the time, the British Government had two conditions that international players had to meet – the player must have played 75% of his national teams’ games, and his national team must be ranked top 74 in the World. Unfortunately for Chhetri, India was ranked 114. Chhetri and his representatives appealed this ruling in court, but they narrowly failed to win a majority.
Chhetri in action against Manchester United's Jonny Evans, in a summer friendly in 2010. (Image via SportingKC)
Despite the letdown, Chhetri maintained a positive attitude and had yet another strong goal scoring season in India. In the spring of 2010, Chhetri settled for an opportunity in the MLS and went on trial with the Kansas City Wizards. On 24th March 2010, Chhetri signed for the club and three weeks later he made his debut in the US Open Cup – thus becoming the third Indian born player ever to play outside of South Asia. Unfortunately, his first appearance was not impressive - he received a yellow card and was subbed off at half time. Chhetri failed to see any playing time in the league, but he was subbed on in a mid-season friendly against Manchester United which his team won 2 – 1 (a game that has certainly gone down in Indian footballing folklore). The next day, Chhetri left for international duty, which would last until the end of the 2011 Asian Cup (6 months away from Kansas City).
The 2011 Asia Cup was India’s first appearance at a ‘major international tournament’ in 27 years. Even though India failed to win a single game in their group, Chhetri scored against South Korea and Bahrain – proving that he was still a clinical goal scorer when given sufficient opportunity.
On 5th February 2011, in the build-up to the 2011 MLS season, it was announced that Chhetri had officially left the team. Chhetri’s stint with the Wizards was unsatisfactory to say the least, not helped by the fact that he was on international duty for six months. In recent interviews, Chhetri has said, “that’s the trip that I have the most regrets about” because he let his lack of playing time affect him, rather than motivate him.
Back in India, Chirag United signed Chhetri for the rest of the 2010-11 season and the striker scored seven goals in as many games for the Kolkata based side. Chhetri moved across the city back to Mohun Bagan for the 2011-12 season and his performances continued to spark international interest. In July 2012, the striker finally had his breakthrough and signed a two-year contract with Sporting Lisbon. However, after one practice with the first team, Chhetri was sent down to play with the reserves – who competed in the Portuguese Second Division. Chhetri made three appearances for Sporting B, but he was loaned out to Churchill Brothers, back in India, so he could see more playing time. Chhetri went on to score four goals in eight games that season, which helped the Red Machine to their second ever I-league title.
Following his release from Sporting Lisbon at the end of the 2012–13 season, Chhetri signed for Bengaluru FC – a newly formed club, entering into its first season in the I – League. Having bounced around various Indian clubs in the past, Chhetri had seen everything there was to see in Indian football. Therefore, he welcomed this new challenge in an effort to be a part of something new.
Despite a slow start with his new club, Chhetri scored 14 goals (7 assists) in 23 games, leading BFC to the I – League title in their inaugural season. Following the 2013–14 season, Chhetri turned 30 and foreign interest began waning. Meanwhile, the domestic football scene in India was gaining prominence, with the creation of the well-funded and more ‘professional’ Indian Super League, which encouraged Chhetri to stay in India.
Since then, Chhetri and BFC have risen together - winning two I-Leagues, one ISL, two Federation Cups, one Super Cup, one Durand Cup and becoming AFC Cup (Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League) finalists in 2016. Under his leadership, the national side has also seen incredible growth. As of today, the Blue Tigers are flirting in the high nineties of FIFA’s World ranking, a huge improvement compared to the 135th rank they held when Chhetri made his international debut in 2005. Having grown up in Bangalore in the last ten years, I can confirm that the 5-foot 7-inch forward is dearly loved in the Garden City and has single-handedly changed the footballing landscape in the country. He has given the people a local hero to look up to, a name for everyone to sing, and unparalleled footballing memories.
Chhetri announced his contract extension to BFC supporters with a tifo of his own, following India's SAFF Championship semi-final victory at the fortress last Saturday. (Image via AIFF)
At the age of 38, Chhetri is still going strong for BFC, and more importantly for the Blue Tigers. He managed to find success in the Indian top flight, at a time when it was little known even within India. Despite his best efforts to play abroad, nothing quite worked out – mostly due to reasons out of his control. Having proved his superior ability in domestic Indian football, he has every reason to quit but he keeps coming back because he knows his value to the future of Indian football. As with the national team, he manages to score no matter his teammates, no matter the opponent. As a striker, it is easy to complain about not getting the right service, especially when playing for a relatively low-ranked team. But Chhetri is self-sufficient. He always finds a way.