BY ATANU MITRA (Follow @Atanu00 on Twitter)
In mere goal-scoring terms, 2016 was not the best year in Sunil Chhetri’s career. The 32-year old footballer has had a number of stellar seasons in the past, having been named the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) Player of the Year on four separate occasions. However, the year bygone added another new jewel to his already well decorated crown, when he led Bengaluru FC to the final of the AFC Cup final – a first among Indian football clubs.
Over the last few years, and especially after Bhaichung Bhutia’s retirement from the national team, the Secunderabad-born striker has become currently Indian football’s most recognisable face. In a country, where domestic football’s popularity is vastly limited to a few bastions and the national team is rarely eulogized or mostly ridiculed, it is important that the poster-boy constantly raises the bar for the rest.
And, for this very reason, 2016 was a year to remember for Sunil. He won the SAFF Championship with the national team and the I-League with his club Bengaluru FC while the pinnacle certainly was the appearance in the summit clash of the continental championship.
The year highlighted his penchant of shining on the big stage. He had underlined it in the past as well, scoring a hat-trick in the final of AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 and scoring twice in India’s AFC Asian Cup sojourn in 2011.
As the hype surrounding the club’s second leg of the semi-final clash against defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim grew, the focus gradually shifted to him from the club’s in-form players like John Johnson, Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Alvaro Rubio.
He obliged the Bengaluru FC faithful that evening by pulling off a world-class strike to change the course of the tie and scripted one of the most talked about chapters of Indian club football.
And this was only one single instance where he has hit the back of the net with a thunderous strike in the recent past. This is a habit he has picked up rather late in his career.
He has scored some unforgettable goals over the last 24 months - goals you can keep on watching on the loop. One of those came against Oman in a World Cup qualifier in 2015, where his shot, which for a moment seemed destined to miss the target, ended up curling into the far corner, leaving former Wigan Athletic goal-keeper Ali Al-Habsi hapless. Only a couple of weeks ago, he scored another memorable goal against Aizawl FC on the day he became the league’s all-time highest Indian goal-scorer.
Whether the sheer brilliance of the strikes were significance is a topic that can be argued upon. As sharing gifs and highlights are fast becoming synonymous with watching football these days, videos of these goals help Indian football gain some traction at least in the subconscious of the majority of the football lovers in India, who otherwise find little incentive to digress from their usual routine of following the European clubs.
Given his incredible work ethic and disciplined lifestyle, fans will expect him to continue for at least half a decade more in professional football. Till then and even for a few years beyond that, Chhetri will continue to be the most celebrated Indian footballer and 2016 proved why that is a deserved tag for the Bengaluru FC attacker.