In every successful journey, there is ups and downs. But when someone emerges from a country which has a short relevance on world footballing map and removes all the odds to put himself and his country to a respectable position, he becomes larger than life character. Sunil Chhetri, born 3rd August 1984 is arguably one of the greatest ever in India’s football history and is a living legend in the country. But it wasn’t easy to establish a footballer’s name in a cricket-loving nation let alone being an inspiration, but Chhetri broke all the barriers and showed the path to many like him. We’ll have a look through the journey of the Secunderabad boy who eventually set an example in a country where football is always put on a secondary priority list.
Chhetri began his youth career in City FC of New Delhi in 2001 and one year later started his professional club career with Mohun Bagan AC of Kolkata and scored 4 goals in 2002-2003 National Football League season when the Mariners finished in seventh place in the table. After 3 years in Kolkata he moved to Punjab and signed for Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Mills FC popularly known as JCT. During 2006-07 season Sunil scored a total of 11 goals for JCT to help his club finish second in the league. Then during 2007-08 season, the very first season after the renaming of Natoinal league to I-League, Chhetri scored seven goals for his club as JCT finished third in the league. In 2008, Chhetri signed for another Kolkata giant East Bengal and scored a looming 9 goals in 14 games for the Red and Gold Brigade including a goal in Kolkata Derby against his former club Mohun Bagan, becoming the top Indian goalscorer in the league that season.
Meanwhile, a number of foreign clubs started to show interest on him with the likes of Leeds United and Estoril Praia of Portuguese second division. However, despite all the talks, nothing materialized. After being released by East Bengal, he signed for Goan side Dempo with a clause in his contract which allowed him to leave for trials abroad in the future if he wanted to. Finally, on March 2010 his dream of playing abroad fulfilled as he signed for Major League Soccer side Kansas City Wizards after having a trial. He became just the third Indian to play outside of South Asia and the first Indian to play in MLS. On 14 April 2010 Chhetri made his debut for the Wizards in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup qualification play-in game against the Colorado Rapids in which he started but ended up with a yellow card and was substituted out of the game at half-time as Kansas City lost the match 1–2. Then, on 23 July 2010, it was announced that Chhetri would play in a mid-season friendly against Manchester United and he did make an appearance for the Wizards against United, coming on as a substitute for Teal Bunbury in the 69th minute as Kansas City won the match 2–1. However, the controversy caused as he did not play a single league match for the wizards. On February 2011 he left the USA and returned to his homeland and signed for another Kolkata club Chirag United. Then after one year with the club, he returned to his former club Mohun Bagan signing a one-year deal.
Then again foreign interest grew on him and Portuguese giants Sportign Club de Portugal signed him for their reserve team. But in order to get more playing time he was loaned out to another Goan side Churchill Brothers and helped them to win their second ever I-League title.
After being released by Sporting CP, Chhetri signed for new direct entry I-League side Bengaluru FC and won the league in his very first season with the club and won I-League golden boot award as well after finding the net 14 times. But in 2015 Indian Super League side Mumbai City FC signed him for the season but Sunil cut a sorry figure both in appearance and scoring goals for the Mumbai outfit because of National duties. However, Mumbai City FC loaned him out to Bengaluru FC for the upcoming I league season and again Chhetri won I-League with Bengaluru making it 2 league titles in 3 years. He signed permanently for Bengaluru FC in 2017 when the club officially entered to the Indian Super League. Finally, he won the most coveted ISL trophy with Bengaluru Fc in 2018-19 season.
Sunil Chhetri played his first game for Senior Indian National Football Team in 2005 and on 12 June 2005, Sunil scored his first goal for his country against Pakistan. Chhetri’s first international tournament was the 2007 Nehru Cup. In the opening game, India defeated Cambodia 6–0 with Chhetri scoring two goals. He also scored a goal in the 2–3 defeat to Syria and another in the 3–0 win over Kyrgyzstan to take his goal tally to four. Chhetri was involved in the build-up to N.P. Pradeep’s decisive goal as India beat Syria 1–0 in the final to become the champions of the tournament for the first time since 1997. He then went on to win Nehru Cup three times for India. 2018 remains as one of the Golden years for him in national colours when he almost single-handedly won Hero Intercontinental Cup for his country scoring 8 goals in that tournament. His second goal in a 2–0 win over Kenya in the final to win the Intercontinental Cup title also equalled Argentina’s Lionel Messi’s tally of 64 international goals back then, making him the joint-second active international goalscorer at that time behind Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo who had 81 goals. He surpassed Bhaichung Bhutia’s earlier record of 107 caps with India when he featured against Curacao in the King’s Cup in Thailand on June 5, 2019, making him the most capped Indian player of all time. He has scored 72 goals with his country which makes him the second active international footballer now with most goals now, just behind Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes, he has more international goals than Lionel Messi! Surprised?
Sunil Chhetri’s father K. B. Chhetri played football for the Indian Army team while his mother Sushila Chhetri and her twin sisters played for the Nepal women’s national team. Chhetri started playing football from a young age taking part in various tournaments. On 4th December 2017, Chhetri married his long time girlfriend Sonam Bhattacharya, daughter of the former Indian national football player and Mohun Bagan legend Subrata Bhattacharya.
Awards & Accolades
Chhetri won AIFF Player of the Year 6 times, FPAI Indian Player of The Year 2 times, India’s biggest award in sports Arjuna Award once and India’s fourth highest Civilian Award Padma Shri award once with numerous other personal accolades. He signed a 3-year deal with global sports giant PUMA India starting from 2020.
We wish one of the most glorious footballer and captains India has ever produced a very happy birthday and wish him success for the future and a long career ahead for his club and country.
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