He has a national record of 68 goals in 62 international matches and an international record of 66 goals in 74 European club games. He was the European Footballer of the Year in 1970 and until 2006 held the all-time goalscoring record in World Cup finals.
He won the European Cup thrice in a row and won the World Cup too. He was honoured as World Football’s Greatest Goalscorer of all time in 2000. He has played alongside and against some of the world’s greatest ever defenders and has more often than not got the better of them too.
So understandably the man they call the Nation’s Bomber knows a thing or two about defenders. And when after an exhibition match between East Bengal and the Bayern Munich U-23 side in January 2009, German legend Gerd Muller said that “East Bengal’s number three (Nirmal Chettri) was brilliant”, it came something as a cause to celebrate for all Indian football followers.
Not that the man of the moment, Nirmal Chettri, has let all this praise dance into his head. He was obviously delighted with what the Bayern U-23 manager had to say about him but modestly remarked at the time that he “will not get carried away and will work hard” as he has “a long way to go.”
Chettri is only 19 years of age and is already a regular centre-back for one of India’s biggest clubs East Bengal. He joined the Kolkata giants from Air India at the start of the season and is now firmly established as a rock in the heart of the Bengal defence.
Raised in Melli Bazar on the border of West Bengal and Sikkim, Chettri was inducted into the Namchi Sports Hostel in 1999 along with his Bengal teammate Sanju Pradhan. Like any other dreamy-eyed kid aiming big, young Nirmal loved scoring goals and initially played as a striker.
Then during the mini SAARC competition, when one of the defenders of the Sports Academy of Sikkim got injured, Chettri, untried at the back before, was asked to replace him. Which he did and did so with such perfection that his coach soon transformed him from a full blown striker to a full blow central defender.
The youngster moved to Mumbai side Air India after an impressive performance at the Governor's Gold Cup in 2006. Two years later after garnering a world of experience, he moved to East Bengal at the start of the season, thereby fulfilling his dream “to play for East Bengal”.
When Chettri was signed by East Bengal at the start of the season, understandably not everyone knew much about him. But now they do. Because now Chettri has shown remarkable maturity and professionalism for a guy of his age and at a club as big as East Bengal.
Chettri has played as a defender for East Bengal but his versatility allows him to play virtually anywhere on the pitch. He started out as a striker and can excel as a defensive midfielder. His build-up from the back, aerial prowess, ball distribution, timely tackles, leadership all can make him play as a defensive midfielder too, maybe even as a libero, that weird role of playing in front of the backline, the role of a sweeper. He has even been tried out as a right back at times and has not disappointed.
Speaking to yours truly, the 5ft9in defender says that he has been told that his height would not allow him to stand out in international football, that he might achieve much in Indian football at club level but would find it tough in the international arena.
True, but isn’t it a bit naïve to think that it is only stature that defines a defender? Maybe this is stretching the border of imagination to a wholly unimaginable extent like baptizing Sanju Pradhan as a right-footed Arjen Robben of Indian football but if Roberto Fabian Ayala could become a world class defender at 5ft9in, then why can’t Nimal Chettri?
No, Chettri is not Ayala and possibly will never be (frankly, no one can ever Ayala, if for anything, then for the simple reason that his cynicism and cunningness can probably never be matched) but to dismiss someone’s ability merely for his stature is like judging a book by its cover.
Moreover, Chettri, as he says, can feature as a defensive midfielder too- although admittedly he has yet to prove that he can be as a good at that as he is at central defence- and this might perhaps convince his detractors to give him another chance.
At 19, the Sikkimese lad is not a finished article and still needs to improve his game. But he has already shown that he can sustain the pressure (and playing for a not very patient club as East Bengal is huge pressure) and is massively reliable. All of which demonstrates that this guy can, as the Nike adverts go, ‘just do it’.