Football - Sunil Chhetri
Sunil Chhetri, India's long serving football captain, goes through his paces during the national team's training ahead of their Asian Cup Qualifiers in Kolkata. Image Credit: AIFF

Kolkata: Come next Sunday (June 12), Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri will be completing 17 years in international football. The anniversary will come right in the middle of India’s bid to qualify for the Asian Cup finals in Kolkata - a city where he began his journey as a professional footballer in 2002 as a 17-year-old rookie for Mohun Bagan Club.

Talk about longevity, it’s difficult to match the 37-year-old, who had been the biggest ambassador for Indian football along with his idol and senior partner Baichung Bhutia since the start of the new millennium. A career in top flight football for 20 years means he has nosed ahead of Bhutia in terms of staying power and is now the most capped ‘Blue Tiger,’ as the national team is known as, with 125 appearances.

Indian football has, over the years, remained a poor cousin to cricket in terms of attracting the eyeballs - though there had been the odd bright sparks in between. Chhetri, however, has been a cut above the rest and not many are aware that that he is currently the third highest goalscorer among active footballers in international football with 80 goals (jointly with Ali Mabkhout of the UAE) and sixth in the overall list. No prizes for guessing, Cristiano Ronaldo tops the list with 117 strikes for Portugal till date while Lionel Messi is on 86 goals.

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How has he managed to keep himself so relevant and will be once again their go-to man for the goals as India take on Cambodia in their first of their qualifiers on Wednesday? ‘‘It’s all about making the small sacrifices in the end,’’ says Chhetri at the team hotel on the eastern fringes of the city - barely few kilometres away from the Salt Lake Stadium where the matches will be played.

Opening up in a freewheeling chat with a handful of mediapersons, Chhetri said: ‘‘It’s all about what I eat and how much I sleep. For the kind of good life that I have got by god’s grace, it’s not a big deal to go for the broccolis rather than the biryani - as I know there will be enough time for such indulgence once I am done with the game. There had been several players who started off around my time and were at my level or even better - who could not sustain the physical demands.’’

If India does manage to qualify for the Asian Cup 2023 at the end of their campaign on June 14, it will be the third time Chhetri will be a part of the continental showpiece in 2011 (Doha) and 2019 (Dubai). Igor Stimac, the Fifa World Cup bronze medallist in 1998 and the current head coach of India, had once gone on record saying that Chhetri’s work ethic is still that of a 25-year-old - and there will be hardly any detractors to that view.

Football - Chhetri
Chhetri says that he has hooked on to reading, with matters of the Cosmos of particular interest to him. Image Credit: Twitter

‘‘Yes, I try to bring the same energy as I shout and scream at the boys during the match. I am not going to be around for too long and hence treat every game as my last - as you never know when one snaps,’’ said Chhetri, who was candid enough to admit that he was worried that India’s campaign could be in jeopardy if Fifa slapped a ban on the Indian football body, All India Football Federation (AIFF), for not conducting periodic elections for officebearers. ‘‘It would have been catastrophic if there was a ban,’’ said Chhetri as the federation’s activities are being conducted under a Committee of Administrators (CoA) appointed by the apex court.

Has Chhetri’s emphasis on fitness and an ideal athlete’s lifestyle rubbed off on his teammates? ‘‘Yes, they have. You can go down to the pool now and see that these boys have become monsters. They may not have the perfect game but they are not afraid of the big names anymore. It’s in this context that I remember the words of Bob Houghton, my earlier national coach and one of my biggest influences, who said that you cannot have the skills of a Ronaldo or score goals like him, but nobody can stop you from working hard as him,’’ Chhetri said.

An important part of Bhutia’s legacy that Chhetri tried to carry on was to instill a sense of ‘we can’ attitude among the Indian players - and it shows in the way a Gurpreet Singh Sindhu or Sandesh Jhingan have tried to raise the bar for themselves by testing themselves in minor leagues of Europe. Asked how much of a motivator he has tried to play off the ground for his younger teammates, Chhetri says with a self-deprecatory smile: ‘‘I give them a lot of lectures like an old man these days. Yes, we do talk about football, but I also encourage them to broaden their horizons and develop interest on anything that they like - be it through reading, surfing the net and filter the information. Personally speaking, I have a lot of interest in Cosmos and the universe.’’

Like all long serving successful sports heroes, Chhetri may find it difficult to sign off but his plans suggest he is already making a move for life after hanging up the boots. He is pursuing a course in Sports Management and reveals that it has led him to do a lot of reading on finance and other allied management aspects - with a book called Effects of the Compound Effect currently on his reading list.

While sports management certainly looks an area up Chhetri’s street, but does he have plans to enter AIFF administration at some point? ‘‘I have no inclination but you never know, tomorrow, I may be at it.’’

A biopic on his struggles or a autobiography - which one would he prefer? ‘‘I am not a huge fan of biopic though I have been into talks with a few people and it’s good to know that there are takers for it. Yes, I have plans to do a book with a journalist who knows me well and have been writing a diary for it. However, it will need time as I want to take my co-writer to some of the places which has shaped my life like say, the Fort William here. I think the book has to wait till I am done with my playing career,’’ he added.

AFC - Chhetri & Kohli
Chhetri (left), who now plays for Bengaluru FC, has often visited the Royal Challengers Bangalore nets at friend Virat Kohli's invitation in the pre-pandemic days. Image Credit: Twitter

Virat Kohli can be effortlessly funny: Chhetri

It’s not exactly a secret that Sunil Chhetri, the Indian football captain, often bonds with cricket superstar Virat Kohli and the duo have become good friends over recent years. A chat between two of the most widely followed sporting icons of the country on Instagram during the pandemic in 2020 on Instagram reflected the kind of mutual respect they share and had gone viral.

Replying to a query from Gulf News about how much of fitness tips they exchange, given the fact both have set a high benchmark for the same, Chhetri said during a recent group media interaction: ‘‘We talk a lot about what to eat, what not to eat and lot of trivia. He is an amazing person and believe me, can be effortlessly funny at times.’’

Social media handles have often shared photos of the two sporting heroes hanging out while Kohli’s birthday wish for Chhetri last year simply said: “If anyone deserves to play FIFA World Cup, its Sunil Chhetri.”

Chhetri revealed that he had tried his hand in cricket quite often and shared his experience of a recent visit to the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru. ‘‘We had returned from the camp in Bellary when I bumped into one of the NCA coaches at my gym. I had expressed interest to go down and meet VVS Laxman (the current director) and visited the facility. I loved training with some of the international cricketers there and did some fielding drills as well,’’ Chhetri signed off.

- G.B.