Sunil Chhetri’s name is almost synonymous with that of Indian football, taking over from where Bhaichung Bhutia left off, and gained himself a cult-like following amongst India football aficionados. He has also been the receipient of the nation's prestigious Arjuna award, conferred on national sportsmen by the Government of India, for their excellent contributions to national sports.
After participating in almost every tournament the national team could qualify for, he finds himself on the verge of crossing the magical number of 42 goals a long held record of Bhutia for the national team, on par with I.M. Vijayan on 40 goals at the moment.
However, in a revealing interview with the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) media house, the striker laid bare the ticking mechanism that keeps him going and also commented on India’s hopes at the SAFF Championships in Nepal.
On being asked about his feelings when he takes to the field at SAFF, especially after finding himself within touching distance of overhauling Bhutia’s record of 42 goal, Chhetri remarked introspectively, “No not at all! In fact, it only struck me when you told me. The fact of the matter stays that had I thought of it, I would have never reached here. If you do so your target becomes narrow. We have come into the SAFF Championship as a team and we want to do good as a team. Everyone has a specific role in the team. It’s not that someone who scores is superior to the other.”
“I wasn’t that fortunate enough to play alongside I.M. Vijayan. But I have been fortunate enough to have watched many of his matches and he is undoubtedly one of the most gifted players India has ever had.
“But at the same time I have been fortunate enough to have played alongside Bhaichung-bhai and I owe a lot to him. He has been a great mentor to me with his teachings both on and off the field. He has helped me a lot to evolve both as a player and as a professional footballer,” was his candid reply when he was asked how his idols had influenced the aspects of his life.
Chhetri humbly accepted that his superior strike rate of 40 goals in 74 matches, compared to I.M. Vijayan's 40 in 79 and Bhutia’s 42 in 107, was primarily due to a striker’s second most important asset, his midfield arteries.
“I was lucky enough to have played a part in a team where I was used to get a lot of balls. Not every striker gets a supply line boasting of Climax Lawrence, Renedy Singh, Steven Dias, Anthony Pereira to name a few. Their sole motive was just to feed me and they fed me with great balls. It’s not every day that that you get to play with such a team. It was all teamwork – they looked forward for me to score and helped me at every step.”
“I won’t ever forget my equaliser against Cameroon in the 2012 Nehru Cup final. We had taken an early lead and Cameroon had come back to score two. Then as we pressed, we were awarded a penalty in the dying minutes of the game. The Championship was hanging on a thread and I had to score. The crowd was behind us and the entire country was behind us too. Everything depended on that single shot of mine, that penalty. We went on to win in the tie-breaker,” fondly elucidated Chhetri, on his finest and most important strike for the team.
Finally, he was asked to relay a message to the fans on the expectations at the South Asian Football Association’s (SAFF) Championship. “I’m trying to keep away from expectations. If you look back, you will see that we have won tournaments in which we took one match at a time. Every match is a final for us. We play the first final against Pakistan on September 1," concluding the interview.
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