The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is set to recommend Sunil Chhetri for the country's fourth highest civilian award – the Padma Shri – a huge recognition for the nation's all-time leading goal-scorer should he get the honour.
Chhetri leads the India chart with 56 goals from 97 appearances and is one of the forwards with better strike rates in world football.
The AIFF said that it was considering recommending a top player for the honour without confirming the name, but sources close to the apex body said it was Chhetri, as the federation recognises the Indian captain's contribution to the sport.
"If there is one name in Indian football who deserves to be recommended for such a huge honour, it is undoubtedly Sunil Chhetri. The AIFF recognises Sunil's contribution and has already looking at the criteria," a well-placed source said.
When contacted, AIFF general secretary Kushal Das also said that the federation has recommended Jeje Lalpekhlua and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu's names for the Arjuna Awards.
Asked if Chhetri is being considered by the AIFF for the Padma Shri, Das did not confirm, but, in what seemed a giveaway, lavished rich praise on the 33-year-old star striker.
Padma awards are announced on the eve of Republic Day, 26 January, every year.
Last June, Chhetri became the fourth highest goal-scorer among active international players when he struck his 54th against the Kyrgyzstan, surpassing England's Wayne Rooney.
He was then behind USA's Clint Dempsey, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi of Argentina.
The Bengaluru FC skipper, who began his career at Mohun Bagan in 2002 as a 17-year-old, is India's all-time highest goal-scorer in international fixtures. Besides, he is also the all-time highest goal-scorer in the domestic league among Indians.
Since then, he has played for 10 clubs across five states and three countries.
In 2010, he travelled to US, to play for Major League Soccer outfit Sporting Kansas City, but did not play a single match.
In October 2012, he made his debut for Portuguese second-division outfit Sporting CP B, though he would make just two more appearances for them.
Sunil Chhetri remembers a certain photograph, taken on a June evening in 2005. During breakfast in the morning, the national coach Sukhwinder Singh had announced that the then 20-year-old will be making his senior India debut later that day. Against Pakistan, at the Ayub Football Stadium in Quetta, Pakistan, Chhetri lined-up with the Indian national team for the first time. And a few minutes into the match he opened the scoring.
“I was so happy that I forgot we were playing in Pakistan because I went near the stands and started celebrating in front of the Pakistani fans,” he recalls. “There’s a very sad photograph where I’m doing this in front of the fans, and nobody on the team followed me.”
That was where the journey had begun for the captain. Since then the celebrations have grown less dramatic as the stats for goals scored have increased, he’s now the country’s highest goal-scorer with 59. But on Monday when Chhetri leads the Indian team against Kenya in their second match of the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai, almost 13 years since that night in Quetta, the 33-year-old will don the Indian colours for a 100th time. The milestone will make him only the second player after former skipper Baichung Bhutia to do so.
“I had a dream (to play for the national team),” he says. “But I never dreamt of playing 100 internationals. Honestly, I never think much about milestones, but it was only when I was having a chat with my mother the other night that she became a bit emotional. How big this was for her made me realise how big the occasion is.”
Chhettri, the constant
In the past 13 years the captain has been the only constant in the lineup that has undergone rapid transformation in the past few years. Prior to the 2018 World Cup qualifiers that began in 2015, the Indian team went through a transitional phase that saw the likes of Gouramangi Singh, Renedy Singh, Bhutia himself – the elder guard – making way for a new generation of players.
And as the national team under Stephen Constantine has begun preparation for the Asian Cup next January, the squad in Mumbai consists of 11 Under-23 players. Through one of those players though, 22-year-old Manvir Singh, Chhetri explains how the generational gap first hit him.
The captain recalls his decision to sit and chat with the shy youngster when he first joined camp. In that conversation, Manvir asked Chhetri if he remembered playing against Punjab Police during his time at JCT Mills. “I told him that I did, and he replied, ‘mere Papa bhi khelte the aapke against,’” he says. “I was like, ‘mujhe boldiya hai, kisi aur ko bolna mat.’ Because of that I generally hate playing with the younger guys.”
Despite the younger, fresher players coming up in the squad, it’s still in the veteran that the team finds its leader. The work ethic is clear, and the responsibility of guiding the young team through thick situations during the qualifiers is incomparable – he scored four times on the way to India topping the Asian Cup third round qualifiers including winners against Myanmar and the Kyrgyz Republic.
And it’s through his own dedication to the sport that he hopes to inspire his young teammates. “I have understood that lectures don’t work,” he says. “Instead, I try to do it for myself so that the boys can follow. It gives me immense joy that Jeje (Lalpekhlua) who started in front of my eyes just the other day is now two games short of 50 International matches. The effort to improve yourself is the hallmark of the squad.”
The captain himself has been working on improving for the past 13 years. A day ago he posted a video on social media pleading the public to attend matches the national team plays in. A total of 2569 made their way to the Mumbai Football Arena to watch Chhetri bag a hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Chinese Taipei – his third international hat-trick.
In India, the fanfare that follows a century is unparalleled, albeit in a different sport. But Chhetri has steadily been approaching that number. On Monday, he will become India’s second centurion.
A hat-trick in the Intercontinental Cup final will get Sunil Chhetri past Lionel Messi and to No.2 in the all time leading international goal scorers list amongst active players.
Chhetri said he is "living a dream" and added that he is a big fan of both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It's worth noting that the Indian football captain's 62 goals have come at a strike rate of 0.62 goals per match, which gets him in the all time top 10 strike rate category.
Indian football's man of the moment spoke at length in an interview to India Today about his famous emotional appeal to fans, India's Intercontinental Cup showing and future challenges for the Indian national football team.
India’s football captain is determined to take the sport to a different level
A science question to begin -- what contains very little mass but occupies a very large space? Answer: on the periodic table, it's hydrogen, the lightest and smallest element that makes up 75% of the universe.
In Indian football, Sunil Chhetri.
The captain of the Indian football team has his sport at his feet and also holds its centre together. In his 18 years in competitive football, Chhetri has moved from being the "next Bhaichung" to carving out his own identity, travelling through clubs in Bengal (Mohun Bagan, East Bengal), Punjab (JCT FC), Goa (Dempo, Churchill Brothers) and, most uniquely for an Indian footballer, in foreign leagues (MLS and Portugal), before his longest stint at Bengaluru FC -- five years, 105 caps and counting. He is today wingman-striker, the goalscorer defending corners, a slight 1.7m humanoid leaping into headers against giants and, after nearly two decades on the pitch, still owning a face that could pass off as teenage imp.
Chhetri's place in Indian football comes from impressive numbers -- 65 goals from 104 international appearances (the highest among current international players), 120 from 247 club appearances around the country, including 48 in 105 appearances over five seasons for Bengaluru FC. Or as Sukhwinder "Sukhi" Singh, who coached Chhetri at JCT and junior India, describes him, "Every era has its star... Sunil is that star of these times."
Chhetri's own hero, Bhaichung Bhutia, believes that Chhetri is a change agent for the millennium, the ideal bridge between two Indian footballing generations. The switch from semi-professionalism of the early Bhutia era -- where by Bhutia's reckoning 90 per cent of players held office jobs -- and to Indian football's new century, when the same amount are full pros, has been given due heft by Chhetri's career. Chhetri had, he says, "to make sure he comes in and does it [professionalism] well to take it further and better and that's what he has done. If a player like Sunil did not succeed and make it big, I think that professionalism and that attitude would really not have carried forward."
At 34, his frame whittled down to F1 driver or tallish race-jockey proportions, Chhetri has become both axis and centrifugal force of Indian football.
The Indian team is hours away from their opening match at the Asian Cup, the premier continental competition, after a gap of eight years, where Chhetri will have to be the team's legs, lungs, brain and heart. India's FIFA ranking may have moved up into the 100s for the first time (last count: No. 97), but no one is dreaming grand dreams here. When the next Asian Cup comes around in 2023, India's captain will be 37 and who knows where he and his team will be. Chhetri is in fact the lone frontline survivor from India's last Asian Cup campaign in 2011, with the uncapped 18-year-old Gurpreet Singh Sandhu as AIFF junior pick also a part of coach Bob Houghton's squad. Chhetri scored two of India's three goals in that tournament and since then has remained vital, relevant and pivotal to the cause of whichever team he turns up for.
Talk to anyone about Chhetri and his football and very little comes back at you that is about talent or skill. Yes, he has the Touch -- that innate contact that runs from ball to boot to brain and back in a nanosecond -- ball control, efficiency off both feet and the spring of muscle strength in the air. What marks Chhetri out in his community is reinvention, growth and a thick coat of professionalism.
Renedy Singh, his senior at Mohun Bagan, JCT and India, says, "Touch is inborn, but if you don't work hard to polish it, it gets dirty again." Chhetri has burnished parts of his game to such a degree that his former India roommate, midfielder Steven Dias is astounded. Dias, just gone 35, plays Mumbai league these days, and sees Chhetri going full tilt "for 90 minutes with the younger boys when you don't even realise he is that age. He is that fit, I don't know how he does it." (If it helps, sweets have been banished from the Chhetri diet for at least six years, with only the most minuscule exceptions like his sister's wedding.)
Sukhwinder says, "It's not like he is just a big name playing anyhow. He is playing physically." BFC, where Chhetri is "captain, leader, legend", may be the reason his career has been made malleable and extended both tactically and physically, with high-quality coaching and backroom support. Yet Chhetri counts JCT, and the quietude of its training bases in Phagwara and Hoshiarpur between 2005 and 2008, as "the foundation of probably who I have become now." With nothing to do but "train, eat, sleep", JCT was far removed from the noisy passion rising out of Calcutta football.
What did Sunil Chhetri do with his first salary? Who is his favourite footballer? ESPN India puts him on the spot.
It was there that the "next big thing", "is going to be a star ... or not" said goodbye to the 17-year-old signed on by Mohun Bagan in 2002. From JCT, Chhetri wanted to become a player "who is reliable, not somebody who just does a cameo, scores a goal here or there. Now you have to change games. If you want to become big, you have to change games." The club gave him 48 caps in three years (21 goals), notice around the country, an India place and a place where he felt 'like family'.
Ten years after leaving JCT, Chhetri is India's Mr Football, his game recalibrated and expanded at BFC. It began with coach Ashley Westwood, who put him on the left wing, away from his favoured place, front and centre. "The dynamic changes [on the wing]," Chhetri explains. "It means coming back and defending very deep... initially I used to do so reluctantly, I didn't want to. It used to be, 'Why should I?' The game script is rewritten beyond going upfront and scoring goals. It's also going back and defending for your team... as much happiness you get as to score, the same happiness you get when that last tackle comes in and saves a goal." Chhetri finished that season (2013-14) as top scorer with 14 goals.
The move from Westwood's brand -- backed by hard physical conditioning of the kind never seen before in Indian club football -- to the Barcelona school methods of Albert Roca and Carles Cuadrat has meant having to absorb failures in order to make positional play part of muscle memory. "We had worked on it for so long, small work every day and you think nothing is changing, nothing is moving, and suddenly the whole wall moves..." Chhetri is animated describing BFC's effortless shift last season from the I-League into the ISL. This year they remained atop the table at the New Year break, and their captain says he sees the game itself differently now, with a broader spatial awareness added to his experienced playbook. The goalscoring game-changer of JCT is now game-reader at BFC, except playing at a higher pace and added physicality from when he was younger.
No matter the public persona, whether urbane gentility or fist-pumping showboating, high-performing athletes across sport are trademarked by their switched-on competitive mongrel and the burning kernel of ambition. Chhetri often says he had never imagined how far football would take him and keeps his targets simple. Fine, fine, but the gatekeepers of his destiny -- competitiveness and ambition -- have driven a "fat little kid" (Renedy's words) from Delhi Cantt to, as coach Derek Pereira describes it, "the outstanding player who is the face of the country's football."
Pereira says, "We are lucky to have Sunil in the national side. How Sachin Tendulkar inspired young cricketers 20 years ago and Kohli is doing now, Sunil Chhetri will inspire young footballers." The flamboyant Subhash Bhowmick, Chhetri's East Bengal coach, who picked him in an all-time Indian XI, says everyone had differed with him then and "will understand now and I hope they have started believing and if they don't they are fools." Renedy slots him in amongst the great strikers of the last three decades alongside IM Vijayan, Bhutia and Jo-Paul Ancheri. Bhutia says Chhetri is "definitely one of the greatest Indian players to have played the game."
Former India coach Houghton remembers "a bright boy, a big talent with the ability to consume information and use it to benefit his game. He had that real ambition... there were a lot of players who were talented but didn't that have that ambition but Sunil definitely had it. He was a good trainer, a hard worker. He deserves his career, he has worked hard at it."
Steven Dias recalls being dragged out to gym after morning training, Chhetri's extra hours of individual practice and workouts in the room to build core strength, the solitary morning runs. "When he was picked for India, he was third or fourth striker and I saw him do what every player should have done. I used to respect him for it." Just turned 20, the two would chatter on in awe about sharing space with the legendary Bhutia, but Dias could see that Chhetri "always wanted to be the best, in his position, whichever club he played for, the best."
Chhetri speaks like he plays, at speed, nimble, mind racing faster than his vocal chords. In a footballing environment of much smoke, mirrors, loud noises and bright lights, it is a relief the captain of India has a sense of proportion. Indian football is not fancy; it stands, he says, for labour and sweat. "We are a country who are not as skilful but are very hard-working. We are a footballing nation where the boys listen and are ready to put in the hard work, and any coach who has trained here will tell you that." A rich skill bank belongs to deeper footballing cultures. "A Scottish batsman will never have the hand-eye coordination of a Sehwag because cricket is... here, everywhere from every age. A Brazilian player's touch will never come in a Bangladeshi player -- I'm not trying to demean anyone, it's just the way it is."
The current India national U-16 squad he points out is "miles better" than the junior team he played for. "They are so good, and I just hope the teams coming after them are better than this one -- that's how you become better." His dream for India's football is improvement and, from his words it seems, an acknowledgement of reality. "If you ask me to put a number, I want us to reach in the top 10 in Asia and stay there.... Then we rub shoulders with the best in Asia, top five or six. Then you know it's there. Right now, we can't even see, it's all foggy, blurry..."
For the there and the it, Chhetri's gesticulating towards a visible distance, trying to explain in real terms how far away India is from the goal that is the Grail. The real immovable goal, that is, rooted in ground reality. Not the one that is constantly shifted by the AIFF and its varied consultants every few years -- a shot at the World Cup. Mattering in Asia means fair assessment. "Once you can see us playing Australia, Japan, South Korea, they can see, 'Oh, they lost 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, whatever.' They know that's how far we are. Right now, what do I answer people?"
Answer the questions he gets asked a thousand times -- when is India going to play in the football World Cup? Chhetri said he was in tears when he saw the first match of the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup. It's his wish, "I hope I'm in the stands ... Before I die [I hope] I see my country playing World Cup. We all want that."
Due to his free-speaking persona, Chhetri has become a credible voice for Indian football, within and without. Amongst non-cricketer male athletes, Chhetri's Twitter following (1.53m) in India is third after boxer Vijender Singh (3.76m) and wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt (3.56m). His heartfelt June 2018 Twitter video asking fans to come to the watch the team play in the Intercontinental Cup in the 7,000-seater Mumbai Football Arena, not only filled the ground but also became the most retweeted tweet (about 60,000 times) in the country in 2018.
Chhetri doesn't think about it any more. "I had no clue it was going to turn up the way it did. It wasn't any gimmick, there was no script. It was just me being sad before the next game... we had beaten Taipei and the lads, coming-up lads like Udanta [Singh] and [Anirudh] Thapa they did so well and there were only 2,000 people in the stadium."
When Chhetri received his first salary as a 17-year-old Mohun Bagan prodigy, it was in a four-month advance of around Rs 60,000 a month, at a time his father KB Chhetri was earning Rs 22,000 from the army. Chhetri withdrew the entire cash from an ATM over three days, set the notes out on his bed and looked at them. "I thought MY GOD, I am the richest guy in the world." He threw the money into the air in a mini-shower, collected it and went to a mall and "bought anything and everything that I could...jeans, shoes, sunglasses. It was mad." Before Kharga Bahadur turned up and sternly informed his son that was "not the way to live". Today, Chhetri is the highest-paid Indian football player, retained by BFC at Rs1.5 crore a season at the 2017 ISL auction.
Even though he belonged to a family of not one but two football internationals from Nepal (his mother Sushila and her twin sister) and a father who played while serving the army, in the Corps of Electronic and Mechanical Engineers, football was not meant to be Chhetri's first-choice career option. It was a mere tool in building discipline and fitness. But his first guru, Army Public School (Delhi Cantt) football coach, "a great man, Mr Ghale," told him, "Work hard, kid because good things are going to happen to you." Chhetri says, "I could probably never see what he was seeing" and when he heard Ghale say, "If you do well, you might play for Delhi," he did not think it possible, but never forgot the words.