Chhetri the role model outdid his idol Bhutia

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Soon after the turn of the century, the arrival of a baby-faced boy in Mohun Bagan sparked interest among the football fanatics of Kolkata. With roots in the hills of Uttarakhand and early schooling in the game done in Delhi, he was marked out for big deeds. The late Amal Dutta, coach of Mohun Bagan back then, predicted a bright future by saying – here was the next Bhaichung Bhutia.

Unlike his idol, Sunil Chhetri didn’t make an instant impact. Bhutia had wasted no time in establishing himself in a league of his own. Success for club and India, a three-year stint in the third tier of the English league and more laurels for every jersey he donned after that, Bhutia became an institution in Indian football for his skills, fitness, work ethics, focus and courage to dream.

Chhetri is bidding goodbye to the Indian team after having raised the bar in every respect. He became the most prolific striker in the history of the national team and featured in the list of top scorers in contemporary international football. He took pride in playing for India and helped the country scale new heights. He spent time testing himself at the club level in the USA. In dedication and single-minded pursuit of his goals, Chhetri set new standards. He not only carried the Bhutia legacy forward, but set examples for juniors to follow.

The most striking similarity between the two is their understanding of the physical requirements. Both realised early in their career that the only way of prolonging it and having a good life was to stay in shape. That Bhutia was around for nearly 20 years and Chhetri is still in demand after over two decades shows the work they have done on fitness. It took years of labour away from the spotlight and not indulging in the good things of life.

After returning from England, where he learnt how a professional footballer takes care of his body, Bhutia used to refuse the food served in the top Kolkata clubs to players, if it was oily or over-spiced. Chhetri is also choosy about diet and is learnt to be urging his teammates to stay away from fare counterproductive for athletes. His fitness regime is exemplary and the effects are visible in the nearly 40-year-old, well-contoured body bristling with energy.

The most significant common trait in Bhutia and Chhetri is their conviction in their vocation and their mental make-up. Playing football was not rewarding or fashionable when the former started and although pay got better during the days of Chhetri, this profession did little in terms of social mobility. For all the recent packaging with a dash of glamour, footballers remain second-class citizens in India’s population of sportspersons.

Bhutia and Chhetri were unconcerned about this. Rather, they did their job with utmost pride and professionalism to become role models and even poster boys. Indian football rarely had anybody like the two. Their looks and ability to converse in English helped, but it was their football and attention to details to become good at it that caught the attention of the next generation. These days, club players are aware of the dos and don’ts. Credit goes to the pioneer and his disciple for demonstrating the virtues of sacrifice and sincere hard work.

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Chhetri is a standout character not only because he is third behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi on the list of goal-scorers during his days in international football. He dared to dream. It forced him out of his comfort zone and took him to unknown shores where the only gain was exposure to a modern football culture. In terms of remuneration and limelight, Chhetri had everything to lose in the USA. He still took the plunge because he wanted to see the bigger picture.

An Indian striker of average build and short stature making life difficult for opponents bigger and stronger — the last act of this extraordinary tale will be played out in the India-Kuwait World Cup qualifier in Kolkata on June 6. The end of Bhutia’s journey coincided with the beginning of Chhetri. There is no immediate heir in sight, but the next generation knows who to look up to.

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