6/3/2018 11:41:55 PM (GMT+3)

Who is this Chhetri?

Who is this Chhetri?

This was the time when ISL was beyond anybody’s imagination, social media was non-existent and National Football League (NFL) was struggling to maintain with its charm. It was during that era, almost 15 years ago, when I saw a diminutive Sunil Chhetri in join Mohun Bagan jersey.

“Who is this Chhetri,” I asked one of my fellow writer during a NFL match at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.

My obvious curiosity was not because he came from my second home, but due to the fact that he wasted at least a dozen of gilt-edged chances on that muggy afternoon.

Chhetri, then a 19-year-old, scored just eight goals in three seasons at Bagan, which finished in the bottom half of the league table.

For a young footballer, Calcutta seemed to be the right choice as Delhi teams, where he played for City Club, don’t even get outstation invitations.

Calcutta wasn’t an unknown city for the Delhi boy, who had his schooling at the Fort William where his father was employed with the Indian Army’s Eastern Command.

It was difficult to ignore the temptation of playing in Calcutta, where he returned as a young footballer. But it was a difficult start as he had failed to soak the pressure of playing in front of vociferous Bagan fans.

The Delhi youngster, perhaps, succumbed to the pressure. And, after a not-so-impressive stint at Bagan, he packed off his bag to JCT Phagwara, which I felt was the turning point in his career.

Three years later when I met him at Ludhiana in January, 2007, Chhetri was a completely different player. He exuded confidence in his words and in the 18-yard-box.

From 2005 to 2007, Chhetri scored 20 goals including 12 goals in a single season when JCT finished second in the I-League and he earned the “Player of the Year” award.

The real grinding was done at Phagwara, where he played with and against the sturdy and taller Punjabi footballers.

It was an amazing transformation for someone, who had shaky start in Calcutta.

At Phagwara, he trained hard under Sukhwinder Singh as there were no other distractions in the industrial town apart from driving down to Delhi home in the weekends.

Playing alongside Baichung Bhutia in the national team was the second most important thing that boosted his career. Before settling for Chhetri, former India coach Bob Houghton had even tried Sushil Singh and Abhisek Yadav but none could match Chhetri’s consistency.

At the two Nehru Cups in Delhi, he was in blistering form followed by the AFC Challenge Cup which paved the way for the Indian side to qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup here. Chhetri was the only shining star, who scored two in India’s three goals in an otherwise failed campaign.

Just like any successful sportsman, the 33-year-old has overcome failures and disappointment in his initial years with a positive attitude. And, that’s what has helped him carve a niche in Indian sports. 

Well done, Chhetri! (http://footballwallah.blogspot.com)