Those stripes won’t ever fade

Five Months Shy Of His Twentieth Birthday, Sunil Chhetri Played His First Ever Game In The Colours Of The National Team. A Little Over Sixteen Years Later, He Sat Down To Tell Us How That Moment Changed Everything…

You could almost get a headache counting the number of accolades Sunil Chhetri has on his mantelpiece. Some were handed to him for simply scoring goals, while some others were awarded for scoring the best goals. Six of them are for outscoring every other teammate at Bengaluru FC for six seasons on the trot. Perched between two others is the Padma Shri medal, the fourth highest civilian award in the country. Shiny and contoured in one corner, sits a trophy that denotes a century of games that the striker has played for his National Team. He also has a cabinet twice the size, laden with more trophies at his Delhi home.

“It’s surreal sometimes when I think about it; that I’ve played 100 games for my country. When I was growing up, if somebody came and told me that I would play for my country just once, I would have been a very happy child. Until you play for the country, you will not quite understand the privilege, the honour and the satisfaction that it gives you. Even if I tell you that you are going to be in the next ten National Team camps or that your father is the Head Coach, until you have actually worn the jersey and played for the country, you will not realise how beautiful it is.”

After eighteen years as a professional, Chhetri’s longevity is matched by very few. But asked to choose between his success and the many years as a footballer, the skipper’s answer is curt. “Between making it as a footballer and being a footballer for such a long time, I have to choose the former; that I’ve made it as a footballer. For me, that is huge! Nobody can ever take that away from me – no matter what happens. I’ve been around for 18 years, I might end up playing 25 years or only 20 or 21, but nobody can take away the fact that I played professional football. There have been far too many sacrifices along the way, but it has been beautiful.”

The word ‘sacrifice’ pulls the pages back yet again, as Chhetri takes us to when he took the train to Kolkata at all of 17 years of age. A stint with Mohun Bagan would follow, and in his own admission, it was the one that hardened him the most.

“All of a sudden, I was told that I had to wake up early and train with professional players. Absolutely no problem. I was told I’d have to be away from my family at 17. I told myself I could do that. I was going to play for Mohun Bagan, where they are ruthless when you’re not doing well. No problem again. None of those seemed like sacrifices then, and they don’t seem like sacrifices now. The real sacrifices were made by my family. Because I never stopped and asked them if they were okay with it. People who are reading this will think ‘What does the family want? What does his wife want? He is Sunil Chhetri.’ But, think about it, when your 17-year-old son leaves the city, and he’s not going to be home for Diwali or Christmas or Holi. That’s a sacrifice. He’s going to be in training when someone is born and he’s going to be in another country when someone else is buried. You can only imagine how tough it is on the family. They do get used to it, eventually, but it never stops being hard. It’s the same for any footballer.”

With over 350 goals for club and country, you would think Chhetri was always the pick of the lot and at the top of the pecking order. But it never was all sunshine and rainbows for the man, who was once not even considered a striker. The year was 2002.

“In my second year at Mohun Bagan, I was still coming off the bench and trying to get some minutes. I can’t remember who we were playing or where this happened, but Ashim Biswas was our striker and he had pulled a hamstring. He couldn’t even walk when he came to the sidelines and said he needs to be replaced. The coach turned to the dugout and said, in Bangla, ‘Ki korbo, striker nahi’, (‘What do I do? I don’t have a striker’) and I was sitting right there. He then took Ashim off and replaced him with a midfielder. If you ask him, he might say that I wasn’t good enough or I wasn’t training hard, and maybe he was right. But that felt really bad. I took it in my stride and of course I was a little bit upset about it, maybe even angry, but I wasn’t too negative. I never doubted myself, and I trained harder because of it. I have to thank the coach for that.”

An uncompromising Chhetri would then learn that it was the problems, the setbacks and the defeats that would always teach him more. “There is a switch that is turned on after a loss, and that doesn’t happen when you win. It isn’t how it should be, but trust me when I say that a defeat teaches you, inspires you, pushes you and disturbs you far more than a win ever will. When I look back, I thank God that all those things happened when I was growing up. It happens even today but it’s different now. I’m used to people telling me how old I am. It doesn’t bother me.”

At 35, most players would agree that their best years are behind them. But, not Sunil Chhetri. With eight goals to his name this season, Chhetri leads Bengaluru’s goalscoring charts yet again and is the only Indian with more than two goals to his name in the League. But behind his goals and celebrations (or non-celebrations), there is a man who still, extraordinarily, considers himself a work in progress.

“I just want to keep playing as long as I can. I would never call the things I do ‘sacrifices’ because I have to do these things to continue to play football at the highest level. I’ve changed my diet completely to aid my recovery, I’ve changed my sleeping habits to make sure I am well rested and I’ve changed pretty much everything I can, only so that things can remain the same. I still get off the pitch every day knowing I want to be better and that I want to improve.”

Before he puts a stop to an interview that took us through the smallest pinch of his career, Chhetri traces back to 2004, and he tells us that one thing never changed since that hot day in Balochistan.

“When I first wore the India jersey and took on Pakistan, all those years ago, I did not know how many more games I was going to end up playing. I would never say that I wanted just one more game. And I definitely wouldn’t dare say I thought I would play a hundred more. But I knew I wanted more. I definitely wanted more and I still do. A part of me says I always will.”