It was on this day 16 years ago, that a certain striker named Sunil Chhetri donned the India jersey for the first time, in the match against Pakistan. Since then, that talismanic striker has gone on to play 117 Internationals, and scored 74 goals – the second-most for an active International goalscorer in the world. On the completion of 16 years in international football, we take a look at a little chat with the man who is now known as Captain, Leader, Legend.
Where does your competitive spirit come from?
To start with, it comes from my parents – especially my mum. When I was growing up, playing different sports – carrom, chess, Chinese checkers, and other outdoor sports with my mum was a very common phenomenon at my house. My first competitor was always my mum. I remember I always wanted to beat my mum, but till the time I was 13, I couldn’t beat her. And she never wanted to lose either. I think the fact that I don’t like losing, a big part of that comes from my mum.
I don’t understand it. They say participation is the key, which is alright after the game is done, because that’s all you can do. You can give your best, and whatever result comes, it’s okay. But before the game, nobody wants to lose. I think about any game, be it a proper World Cup Qualifier, or a normal table tennis game, I feel the same way – I don’t like to lose.
Any childhood memory that still has a big impact on you, even today?
A lot of Army kids will relate to this. My father was away a lot, so when he came back, it was like a festival. But most of the time, me and my sister would spend time with my mum. A lot of things that we have learnt, the way we have been brought up, it’s all because of my mum.
And if I have to tell you one particular memory, it would be my mum coming with me to the field, because I complained that nobody wants to come and play with me in the heat of the Delhi summer. Around 3-4 pm in the summers, it’s impossible for people to come out. There’d be loo blowing outside, and it’s not easy. So one day I was complaining that I had nobody to play with, and my mum came with me to play.
For the whole 10-15 days of summer vacation, I used to play foot tennis with my mum, and that was amazing. At that time, I thought that it was normal. But when I look back, I realise that it’s not. She didn’t want me to not do or not enjoy something just because I didn’t have friends. And it’s not just once. Playing volleyball or football with my mum was common.
You were quite the prankster in your younger days. Were those the typical Delhi-wala pranks that you carried to the National Team?
Our jokes and pranks were a bit harsh, and over the edge in Delhi – that’s the kind of surrounding I was in, growing up. And also the fact that I was playing with players who were a bit senior than me. So I got a level-up kind of pranks. But now, because I’m surrounded by all these kids, I restrict myself to a few satires and sarcasm. I don’t do pranks anymore, because they’re too young.
The boys who remember me for all the pranks were in the National Team before. And I guess it was me and Stephen (Dias) who were the main protagonists of these pranks that went around in the National Team.
How do you look back at the journey?
It’s been amazing. To play for the number of years for the National Team, to represent the country the number of times I have, it’s been outstanding. It is beyond a dream.
It’s a wonderful journey, that would not have been possible without my family, friends, my close group, the players I’ve played with, the coaches I’ve trained under, the physios, the doctors – and I say this because all of them are equally important for whatever I’ve achieved.
You were a backbencher in the team bus before, but now you’ve changed your seat. Any reason for that?
I was a proper backbencher when I joined the team. All my musketeers were behind with me – Pradeep (NP), Mehraj (Mehrajuddin Wadoo), Stephen (Dias), Pal (Subrata), Mangi (Gouramangi Singh), Anwar was there, but he wasn’t very mischievous, and Sameer Naik also used to come back with us, though he was a few years senior.
Our lot, we were all very mischievous. There were big stalwarts who used to sit in the front. There was Bhaichung (Bhutia) bhai, Renedy (Singh) bhai, Mahesh (Gawali) bhai, Deepak Mondal – all of them used to sit in the front. But we were behind, singing songs, doing pranks, talking stupid stuff mostly.
But slowly as all those boys started leaving, and new boys came in, that petered out. Just a small example, (it feels like) just yesterday, that these two kids came in – Sandesh (Jhingan) and Gurpreet (Singh). And I was telling these two kids are good, they’ll do well. And now those two are the main players here, and they’re Arjuna Awardees. That’s how time flies.
There are so many kids who are now calling them ‘Sandesh bhai’, ‘Gurpreet bhai’. And the one calling them bhai is Udanta. And then there’s a Suresh (Singh) who, in turn, is calling Udanta bhai. There are so many levels now. The only thing I can say, looking at all this is that I’m so fortunate that I’m still here, playing for my country.
The gap is huge now. I don’t have anyone even close to my age or era. But it’s good to be around kids. They teach me a lot of stuff with their excitement and fearlessness. I try to grasp whatever I can from this lot.
Just two days back, I was having a chat with Bhaichung da, I was telling him how I miss the old camp, purely because now I don’t hang with anyone. I’m in my room only.
He told me something very interesting, “You know what, I know exactly what you’re going through. When I was about to retire, I felt the same thing. The only advice I’ll give you is to keep going until you are happy and motivated. And the day you think that it’s not motivating enough anymore, then you think about it. But right now, you just enjoy and keep doing what you love.”
When you came in, there was the one and only Bhaichung Bhutia, who dominated the Indian Football scene. What traits did you learn and take from him?
Oh, I learnt a lot from him. Not just him, but all the seniors that I named earlier – Renedy bhai, Mahesh bhai, Climax Lawrence, Abhishek Yadav, Surkumar (Singh) – all of them. I was very fortunate to have been pampered.
For Bhaichung da, one thing that I loved about him is how down-to-earth he really was. We all knew who he was – he was our captain, the main guy. But he was so approachable, and he made efforts to come and talk to each one of us. I still remember, our group used to talk to us, share his experiences, tell us where we are going wrong – not just on the field, but off the field too.
We were very well-nourished as far as our seniors were concerned, especially with Bhaichung da. All of them were very kind and helpful. They did tell us when we were wrong and told us in a very harsh way. They had different ways of dealing with us, but all of them taught us so much. There’s nobody better than Bhaichung da.
What did you learn from Bhaichung on the field?
That man was relentless in the way he approached a game. His mentality was bulletproof. He was at it, every game. The first challenge, the first tackle was always Bhaichung da. The one to fight for lost causes was always Bhaichung da. And when as a senior you saw that our captain, the most senior guy was working so hard, it rubbed on us.
There were so many times we weren’t that good, but we still got to the end was because of the perseverance that Bhaichung da got to the team. I keep telling all the number 9s that I meet about Bhaichung da. I don’t think that I’ve met anyone as dedicated and as hungry as him.
What difference do you see in the youngsters who are coming in today, to the time when you yourself had just made the team?
Nowadays the kids are more aware and more prepared. I know I’ll get a message from Stephen and Pal for saying this. But the simple thing is that the youngsters now have more information on their hands, and they use it properly. And I’m not trying to judge their performance, but just that the information on hand is way better now.
The kind of coaching, the kind of awareness is a huge difference now. The good thing is that a lot of youngsters are using it properly.
Where do these youngsters need to improve?
There are a lot of things where they have to work, and they know this. They’re all hungry. I think they can do much better with the ball. The technical aspect, where they have to keep the ball and move around with it, needs to improve. But I think that’s me being a little harsh. The more games they’ll play, the better it will be. As we talk, Glan Martins has two games under his belt, Suresh has three games, Subhasish seems young to me, Gurpreet and Sandesh have become regulars, Manvir did well last season in the ISL, then there’s Bipin as well.
It’s a young team, but the one criticism that I have is that we have to be a bit braver to pass the ball and keep the ball. I think it will come. We are all working hard, keeping shape, going and coming back, making those runs is a given now. But for us to go to the next level, I think we have to keep the ball and be brave with it. That’s probably one thing that the youngsters can work on.
What does it take to be a goalscorer?
A lot of training and hunger. If you don’t think that you’re going to score. Even if you have the skills, talent, and even if you do all the hard work – if you don’t think and visualise that you’re going to score – if your hunger isn’t there you won’t score. If you take the example of all top scorers in our country or the world, this will be a common aspect that they are hungry. They are losing, they’d want to score, the team is winning 6-0, they’d still want to score.
I think, there are a lot of attributes to become a good goalscorer, but the two most important things would be hunger and continuous training.
Padma Shri, Arjuna, an icon of International Football – what’s next for Sunil Chhetri?
These are things that I’ve never planned about. When I got there, I was really thankful and honoured. What is important to me is the game against Afghanistan, and then 10 days of rest, before I join my club again for the AFC Cup. That’s it, that’s how far my attention span goes. I am unable to think beyond. And that’s probably why my life is a little bit easier.
I don’t think long term, because it phases out. That’s how it works for me. The next game is Afghanistan, then take 10 days off, and then hopefully get ready for the AFC Cup.
Who are the athletes that you take inspiration from?
A lot of them. I think two days back I was on a spree of watching tennis highlights. I was watching Roger Federer and Serena Williams. I was also going through the kind of tournaments that Serena Williams has dominated.
The amount of inspiration around us is so much. There are so many extraordinary athletes. And not just athletes, because I am a sportsperson, I watch them and learn. But around the world, there are plenty of people who will inspire you. One I want to mention is that all the people who nobody knows about, but came out and helped others under COVID circumstances, was extraordinary.
There are so many that I could talk to. Their monthly income is Rs 50,000 and they’re donating Rs 40,000 out of it. They are on the ground, helping others. And you realise that this is extraordinary. And there’s not only one, these people are all around you. So if you want inspiration, it is all around you. If you want it, there’s so much inspiration everywhere.
What are your thoughts on having more goals than Lionel Messi in International Football?
There’s a lot of talk, even in my family WhatsApp group, and I tell everyone the same thing. The truth is that there’s absolutely no comparison between me and him. Along with everyone else in the world, I am also a huge fan. There is no comparison whatsoever.
I am just happy that I get an opportunity to score for my country, and that’s about it. When I see my name there, I feel proud for five seconds that I could do something for my country, and that’s about it. I don’t get into the stupid cocoon of comparing myself with all those great players. There are thousands of players who are better than me, and all of them are also fans of Lionel Messi. That’s the gap.
As for the numbers, once I’d done playing, we’ll talk about them. We will take out one goal and we will talk about the anecdote. I mean, nobody in the country has played more games than me – that’s something nice. Nobody in the country has scored more than me — I feel honoured. These things are nice, and they motivate me, but I don’t think about them too often.
Only once I’m done, and I’ve got a belly full of food, then we can talk about them.
How will you greet Lionel Messi if and when you meet him?
I’d say, ‘Hi, I’m Sunil Chhetri, and I’m a big fan’. And that’s about it. I will not trouble him. I’m a fan, but all the people I’m a fan of, I don’t trouble them much. If I meet him, I’ll be happy, if I don’t, I’m still good. When I’m sad, I watch Messi’s videos, and it makes me happy, so when I meet him, I’ll tell him I’m a fan, give him a nice handshake, and that’s about it.