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To Be an Ideal Role Model – What Makes Sunil Chhetri More Than Just a Footballer

Sunil Chhetri has often emerged as India's ideal sporting role model. We take a look at those instances.

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Football
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What makes an athlete a posterboy? The simple answer might be excelling in their sport. But what elevates them to the status of a role model for millions? This answer is multifaceted.

On Thursday, 6 June, when the Indian football team will face Kuwait in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers at Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium, the face of Indian football for the last couple of decades — Sunil Chhetri — will don the national jersey for the final time, marking the end of a glorious career.

Beyond his impressive stats on the football field — 19 years, 150 appearances, 94 goals — Chhetri's impact on fans is profound and emotional. Throughout his remarkable journey, the 39-year-old maestro has not only excelled on the field but also inspired fans by standing with his country in times of need and supporting his teammates when it mattered most.

As his football journey concludes, let's look at instances where Chhetri used his influence for the greater good beyond the football field:

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Offered a Helping Hand During The Pandemic

Sunil Chhetri has often emerged as India's ideal sporting role model. We take a look at those instances.

When the nation was grappling with the deadly COVID-19 epidemic in 2021, Chhetri, then boasting over 1.6 million followers on X, made a remarkable gesture. He handed over control of his account to "real-life heroes," enabling a broader dissemination of support messages and aiding COVID-19 patients nationwide.

Hey, everyone. As promised, I'll be handing my Twitter account to some of the real-life heroes over the coming weeks, to try and help them get their messages of support and relief to a wider audience.
Sunil Chhetri

Appealed for Assam Floods

Sunil Chhetri has often emerged as India's ideal sporting role model. We take a look at those instances.

In 2020, amidst the devastating floods in Assam, Chhetri emerged as a leading voice from the sports world, drawing attention to the urgent need for assistance in the flood-ravaged state.

Chhetri emphasised the critical situation in Assam, stressing the immediate need for aid and support as the state grappled with loss of life and widespread displacement in its submerged districts.

Along with the prayers, Assam needs as much attention and help as possible to recover from the floods it is under. There's been considerable loss of life - both man and animal, and I can only sincerely hope that the numbers don't rise.
Sunil Chhetri
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Gesture of Grace Amidst Logistical Hurdle

Ahead of the 2017 Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai, a press interaction was arranged in the stands of the Mumbai Football Arena. Despite facing a logistical challenge with limited seating, Chhetri handled the situation gracefully and left a lasting impression with a touching gesture towards a senior journalist.

A large media contingent gathered to hear the captain speak, but the setup posed a challenge, offering only a solitary plastic chair for Chhetri. Without hesitation, Chhetri insisted that the chair be given to the senior journalist, opting instead to sit on a concrete block supporting a fence. This selfless act exemplified Chhetri's humility and respect for others.
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Expressed Solidarity With Wrestlers During Protest

Sunil Chhetri has often emerged as India's ideal sporting role model. We take a look at those instances.

In contrast to many athletes who steer clear of political issues, for varied reasons, Chhetri stands out as one of the few who boldly speaks out against injustice.

When top wrestlers were detained for protesting outside the parliament, demanding action against their federation chief over allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation, Chhetri didn't hesitate to condemn the injustice and offer his support to the athletes.

Why does it have to come down to our wrestlers being dragged around without any consideration? This isn’t the way to treat anyone.I really hope this whole situation is assessed the way it should be.
Sunil Chhetri
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Resolved Conflict Between AIFF & ISL Clubs

Ahead of the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) initially announced a 22-member squad featuring some of the country's top talent. However, disputes with Indian Super League (ISL) clubs over player releases led to a revised 18-member squad, predominantly made up of inexperienced players, with Sunil Chhetri as the only notable name.

The continental event, taking place outside the FIFA window, coincided with the start of the 10th ISL season just two days later. This scheduling conflict resulted in protracted negotiations between the AIFF and ISL clubs. After months of uncertainty and multiple revisions, the AIFF finally confirmed the players travelling to Hangzhou.

Sunil Chhetri played a crucial role in resolving the conflict. He personally spoke with the players and urged them to be available for the Asian Games. Chhetri emphasised the need for unity to ensure India fields its best team for the competition. He also voiced his frustration over the lack of opportunities for the players to train together.

He took to 'X' and wrote:

I understand it is not easy for clubs and coaches to release players. But a man can always hope and I am still hoping that we go with the best possible team.
Sunil Chhetri
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Catalysing Fan Engagement

Chhetri's influence and the power of his words were on full display in June 2022 when his heartfelt plea on social media led to a surge in ticket sales for the Asian Cup qualifiers in Kolkata, filling stadiums that initially struggled to attract fans.

During a press conference ahead of the qualifiers, Chhetri expressed his excitement about the event being held in India. When informed that only about 15,000 tickets would be available to the public due to a perceived lack of interest, he was stunned and decided to voice his displeasure. His response and subsequent call to action resulted in a significant boost in attendance, demonstrating his profound impact both on and off the field.

It doesn’t make sense. The fact that we are hosting it would make no difference then. We go for training here and 100 people come to watch us. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the country. That is why I feel strange when I hear that the response might be cold. So, you can blame whoever for not doing enough to promote the game.
Sunil Chhetri

As a result, more tickets were released, and nearly 50,000 fans attended the matches.

Similarly, before the Intercontinental Cup in 2018, Chhetri's heartfelt appeal on social media once again mobilised fans, filling the Mumbai Football Arena for India's games in the tournament.

This tweet not only inspired fans to flock to the game but was recognised as the "golden tweet" of 2018, being the most retweeted tweet from India that year, garnering nearly 60 thousand retweets.
To everyone who is not a football fan, please come and watch us for two reasons. No. 1 – it’s the best game in the world and No. 2 – we play for our country. We will make sure that once you come to watch us, you will not return the same person back home.
Sunil Chhetri

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