On a wintry January evening in India’s capital of Delhi, when the Indian national team hosted the German juggernauts – Bayern Munich – for Bhaichung Bhutia’s testimonial, there were raucous roars across the ground, even though the home team lost the contest (if it could be called such) by 4 goals to 1. When the captain was substituted out on the 84th minute, leaving the field for the final time, dropping his boots with the grace and composure that had marked his career, there were cheers aplenty as the big man was serenaded out.
But a dark question arose in the minds of the Blue Pilgrims. Who would lead the team next? Who could helm the Blue Tigers like the ageless stalwart Bhaichung had? Was there any hero hearing these calls, or would the team – and Indian football – go on a downward spiral?
Thankfully, one man was listening. A man was willing to rise to the occasion. The man who would be King: Sunil Chhetri.
To understand Chhetri, we need to go back to where his story began. The story about a precocious teen who had to sew and reuse his boots when they were torn, and whose skill and talent made Indian football giants Mohan Bagan sign him up at the age of young 17. But the Sunil Chhetri of then was very different from the Captain Fantastic of now.
Indeed, it was his signing by Queens Park Rangers – where he couldn’t start due to the FA rules about foreign players from countries ranked outside the top 70 – to his signing by the Kansas City Wizards of the MLS (where despite some stellar performances in pre-season, he was never handed a start – to ultimately his stint with Sporting Lisbon (where the coach told him he was not good enough for the A team) which moulded him into the player he is. He saw the effort put in by the players at those clubs, the seriousness, the hardwork and ethic coupled with talent, and of course, the rigorous diet and exercise needed which made him realize what he needed to add to his game if he was to take things to the next level, improve and blaze a lasting career with India.
Thus, a changed Chhetri joined the Indian team under then coach Bob Houghton, and the rest, as they say, is history.
From leading Bengaluru FC to their first ever I-League title in the debut season itself, to becoming India’s talisman striker and breaking records left, right and centre and blazing a trail to becoming the world’s third highest active goalscorer, the man meant business. A clarion call to the supporters when the national team was playing in front of an empty stadium in Mumbai led to massive crowds as the seats filled up and a galvanized team led by Chhetri showed the world that football had well and truly arrived in India. Since then, he’s continued leading from the front, scoring crucial goals for club and country leading Bengaluru FC to the AFC Cup Finals, and India to a decent showing in the Asian Cup with some remarkable results along the way against Asian heavyweights.
Now, at the age of 35, the big man still continues to lead from the front and show that he is still at the top of his game, but as he grows older, a sneaking whisper begins to snake its way into the minds of Indian football fans once again – Who next? Who will lead the team when Captain Fantastic retires.
A heavy question – but one we must leave for another time.
Until then, let’s bask in the genius of the boy from Hyderabad who would be King.