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Sunil Chhetri: The Star of Indian Football

Sunil Chhetri was born on 3rd August 1984 in Secundrabad, Telangana, India. Sunil Chhetri’s father played football for the Indian Army’s team. His mother played for Nepal women’s national team. He took interest in playing football from an early age and took part in various local tournaments. He married Sonam Bhattacharya his childhood girlfriend who happens to be the daughter of Subrata Bhattacharya, the Mohan Bagan legend.

Sunil Chhetri is the star of the Indian football who not only captains the Indian national team but is also the former captain of the ISL Bengaluru team. In 2015 he was picked up by the Mumbai City FC for a sum of Rupees 1.2 Crore, making him the most expensive player in the ISL. Sunil Chhetri is also the second-highest Indian goalscorer in International matches amongst currently active players. With 115 matches and 72 goals, he tops the Indian scorecard as the highest goalscorer and the most capped player ever. On his 34th birthday, the AFC named him “An Asian Icon”.

The Rise of Sunil Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri’s professional career began in 2002 at Mohan Bagan with the National Football League playing in New Delhi. After his first season with the club in 2002-03  Sunil Chhetri scored four goals by coming in the seventh place in the table. In the second season, Chhetri scored only two goals, one against sporting Goa and second against Indian Bank with Mohun Bagan coming in the ninth position. In 2004-05 he again scored only two goals. He scored 21 goals in 48 matches while playing for Jagatjit Textile and Football Club where he moved to from Mohan Bagan. 

Although not for very long, Sunil Chhetri became the third player from the subcontinent after signing in 2010 to go abroad for the Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer, before coming back to India’s I-League.

Peter Vermes the Head Coach of Kansas City Of Major League Soccer said that Sunil Chhetri is a very “crafty player”, is very sharp, and has good attacking skills and tendencies. In 2010, 24th March  Sunil Chhetri formally signed up for the team becoming the third Indian player to play outside South Asia and the first Indian to play in MLS.

Sunil Chhetri made his debut on 14th April 2010 for the Kansas City of Wizard of Major League in the Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup play-against Colorado Rapids, however, at half time he was substituted out of the game with a yellow card in which Kansas City lost the match 1-2.

Sunil Chhetri was to play a mid-season friendly match against Manchester United on 25th July 2010. This, however, caused controversy as he had not played any league matches. He played the match on 25th against Manchester United playing from the Kansas City side, coming as a substitute for Teal Bunbury in the 69th minute as Kansas City won the match 2-1.

Sunil Chhetri was to compete for the Indian National Team until the end of the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. It was later on 5th February 2011 that they announced that Sunil Chhetri had officially left the team.

The Nehru Cup of 2007 was Sunil Chhetri’s first international outing where he represented India against Cambodia, scoring 2 goals in the same match. Chettri had a total tally of 4 goals in the tournament, and a critical assist in the final that helped India clinch the championship for the first time. Sunil had critical roles in the 2008 SAFF Championship, unfortunately, India crashed out in the Finals against the Maldives, but later that year in the AFC challenge cup, Chhetri played a crucial role not only to get India in the finals berth but also scored a hat-trick in the final and won India the cup. Winning this cup was important as it directly qualified the national team for the 2011 Asian Cup, the first time in 24 years. It was this match that highlighted him as the poster boy of Indian Football. The Nehru Cup was won by Sunil Chhetri in 2007, 2009 and 2012. Sunil Chhetri even won the SAFF Championship in 2011.

India had failed to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup, and in the 2019 Asian Cup Qualifiers, Sunil Chhetri scored and assisted in the match against Macau and successfully registered a berth in the tournament. 

In 2018, Sunil Chhetri once again scored a hat-trick in the match against Chinese Taipei of the Intercontinental Cup held in Mumbai, India. Chettri scored consistently in the tournament and scored twice in a 2-0 win in the finals. It was this match that took his international goal tally to 64 and equalling Argentina’s Lionel Messi making him joint second highest goal scorer amongst active players at the time led only by Christiano Ronaldo. Sunil Chhetri was also the highest goal scorer of the tournament with 8 goals.

Success Graph

In 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019 Sunil Chhetri has been named AIFF player of the year. In 2008, Sunil Chhetri helped India win the AFC tournament and even qualify for the first AFC Asian Cup in 27 years. In 2011,  in which Sunil Chhetri was leading having scored two goals at the AFC Asian Cup which was short-lived. Sunil Chhetri scored three goals while he was signed up with JCT in the year 2005-2006. In the same year, JCT finished in sixth place. While playing against Salgaocar he scored two goals, however, he scores three while playing for Sporting Goa. During the Santosh Trophy matches, Sunil Chhetri scored two consecutive hat tricks for Delhi, against Orissa and Railways. Even after his Countless efforts, Delhi was eliminated in the pre-quarter after losing to Tamil Nadu by 1-0. In the first season of the I-League, JCT finished the season in third place after Sunil Chhetri scored a total of seven goals. It was Mid Way during this season in December 2007 that Sunil Chhetri was awarded the AIFF player for his excellent form and performances for the club and his country due to work permit issues and restrictions he was not able to establish his career Aboard. He was keen on playing and moving to Europe, to play alongside Spanish striker David Villa. Soon rumors started doing rounds in October 2008 that Sunil Chhetri had sparked interests from foreign clubs like Leeds United of the Football League and One and Estoril Praia of the Liga de Honra which happens to be the second division of Portugal.

International Breaks and Heart Breaks

During an interview, Sunil Chhetri said that nothing has been confirmed, which indicated that there were chances of him signing up for England. However, nothing materialized.

In 2009, after being released by East Bengal Chettri signed a two-year contract with another I-League team, Dempo. This contract allowed him to leave for his trials aboard in the future if needed which was a plus point for him. During a pre-season friendly match, the Scottish Club had watched Sunil Chhetri playing with Santboia. It was even reported that Celtic from the Scottish Premier League was wanting to sign in Chhetri.

Sunil Chhetri tried his luck playing for the Sporting Clube de Portugal of the Primeira Liga. It was reported that he had signed a two-year contract with sporting Lisbon and would be playing for the reserve team. He made his debut for the Segunda Liga side against S.C Freamunde in which he came at the 85th minute as Sporting CPB won the match 2-0.

Hindustan Times on 30th August had announced that Sunil Chhetri had signed a three-year contract with the English Football League Championship for Queens Park Rangers side, but he was denied work permit by the British Government. Since India was not in the top 70 of the FIFA World rankings, he was denied his work permit. Even after being signed in and not getting work permit Sunil Chhetri remained positive and continued to work hard for his Counter and his club Dempo who had been very supportive of his decisions.

Sunil Chhetri was loaned out to the Churchill Brothers in the I-League in 2013 to get more playing time. During this time Sunil Chhetri scored four goals in a total of eight matches which helped Churchill Brothers win the I-League title the second time.

Indian Legend

Now 34 years old, Sunil Chhetri has represented various cities like Bengaluru FC and Mumbai City. This year he has played four matches in the ISL and scored one goal. 

In his career spanning over 15 years starting from 2005, Sunil Chhetri has made an appearance in 115 matches and has a tally of 72 goals to his name, and it doesn’t look like he’s stopping any time soon.

Before Sunil Chhetri, Bhaichung Bhutia was the only torchbearer of India football, who was also widely recognized, and Sunil Chhetri has widely been referred to as Bhaichung’s successor in the National team. Sunil is probably the only name in the current crop of players who has mass recognition and appeal among the domestic audience as well as international followers of the game.

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