Sunil Chhetri, 150-cap legend, can draw on fan power to fire India to glory

Sunil Chhetri has now played 150 games for India. (

Sunil Chhetri played his 99th match for India in June 2018, against a second-string Chinese Taipei side. His hat-trick took him to 60 goals in international football, but it was what happened afterwards that caused a real buzz on social media. The Taipei game had been watched by only 2,569 fans in Mumbai. Less than a fortnight earlier, more than 30,000 had witnessed the IPL final, even though the hometown Mumbai Indians hadn’t made it.

Something in Chhetri snapped that night of the Taipei game and he took to social media.  “To all of you who are fans of big European clubs and support European clubs with so much passion…sometimes you guys think that the level is not the same, so why do you waste your time?” he said. “Agreed, the level is not the same, not even close but with our desire and determination, we will try our best to make your time worth [while].”

It was an extraordinary spectacle, as the national team captain literally begged fans to turn up. “To all of you, who have lost hope or don’t have any hope in Indian football, we request you to come and watch us in the stadium,” he said. “I mean, it’s not fun to criticise and abuse on the Internet. Come to the stadium, do it on our face, scream at us, shout at us, abuse us. Who knows, one day we might change you guys, you might start cheering for us. You guys have no idea how important you guys are and how important your support is.”

He had his palms together, like a wandering holy man seeking alms, and the video prompted one of India’s other sporting greats to offer his thoughts. “Please take notice of my good friend and Indian football skipper Sunil Chhetri’s post and please make an effort,” said Virat Kohli on Twitter. “If you want to be called a proud sporting nation, we need to accept and support all sports equally.”

More than half a decade on, Indian football is in a very different place. They have a coach, Igor Stimac, who reached a World Cup semi-final with Croatia and doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, and two consecutive Asian Cup appearances have led to far greater coverage of the national side.

In recent months, that coverage hasn’t been positive. A goal-shy Asian Cup which was littered with defensive lapses as well has seen an avalanche of criticism, and last Thursday’s dismal draw with Afghanistan on neutral turf in Saudi Arabia hasn’t helped matters.

Chhetri, who hasn’t scored since netting against Malaysia in the Merdeka Tournament last September, hasn’t escaped scrutiny. He turns 40 in August, and the goals have dried up for both club and country. His best season in goal-scoring terms for Bengaluru FC was in 2017-18, when they reached the ISL final. Most of his 24 goals owed much to Miku’s work as a powerful target man and the precise passes that Dimas Delgado pinged forward from midfield.

There is no such creative force in the current Indian side, and Chhetri often makes runs that aren’t even spotted by his midfield colleagues. His own touch and composure have also deserted him in recent games. Regardless of whether India make it to the third round of Asian World Cup qualifying or not, Chhetri’s future is likely to be as an impact substitute if he does keep on playing.

But that’s a topic for another day. As he steps on to the turf in Indian colours for the 150th time, nearly 19 years after the first cap at the Ayub Stadium in Quetta, Chhetri will be able to look around the stands and see that his plea from six years ago was heeded. India may or may not take the next big step. But whatever the result, it won’t be for lack of support.   

When he celebrated cap no: 100 with a penalty goal and a delightful chipped finish against Kenya in the pouring monsoon rain, the stadium was heaving. A bunch of youngsters, coming to the football for the first time, burst into spontaneous song.

“When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag,” they sang, mouthing the words from the K’naan hit associated with the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.

On Tuesday night in Guwahati, the tricolour will be waved in the hundreds in tribute to Chhetri. And if he can find the goal that takes Indian football to the threshold of a new frontier, the final chapter of his epic journey may still turn out to be a golden one.

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