(This article was first published on 7 July. It is being republished from The Quint's archives on Sunil Chhetri's 39th birthday).
Barring the staunch supporters, of which there aren’t many, the nation’s relationship with football could be termed, albeit whilst running the risk of oversimplistic generalisation, ‘sporadic.’
Once in a blue moon, the citizens will receive a circular, saying that the football team has qualified for the final of a competition. Be for it ninety minutes, and ninety minutes only, there will be earnest interest. And, depending on the result, there will be either of two subsequent plausible comments – ‘This is why the sport isn’t popular in India,’ should the team lose; and, if they win, ‘I’m telling you, we will qualify for the next FIFA World Cup.’
The frivolous cycle, which is now experiencing the second outcome following India’s exemplary SAFF Championship 2023 triumph by capsizing Kuwait in the final, went through the first outcome 15 years ago, when in the same tournament, India had suffered a 0-1 defeat against Maldives in the final.
Despite the result, it was evident that Bob Houghton, then coach of the Indian football team, had triggered a revolution. Only a year ago had his team beaten a formidable Syria side to win the Nehru Cup, and, with plenty of new faces in the team, to make it to the SAFF Championship final unscathed wasn’t particularly a mean feat.
A framework was established for the post-Bhaichung Bhutia era in Indian football, but, as destiny would often have it in the harsh realm of sports, not every player with promise went on to live up to the expectations. The likes of Bungo Thomchok Singh, Manjit Singh and Anwar Ali had their moments, but never really became an established figure in the side.
Tides turned and new batches of fresh faces were periodically introduced. Houghton left, and India have had five coaches since then. That defeat against Maldives was soon forgotten, with the team winning five such titles ever since. An entirely new league was created, and the teams from 2008 were either closed down, or reduced to negligible significance.
Indian football, as we then knew it back then, doesn’t exist anymore. Except, whilst all of its minute components were ripped to shreds and replaced by all things new, the team has had one constant over the years – Sunil Chhetri.
A New Hero Emerges
The 2008 event happened to be Chhetri’s maiden SAFF Championship campaign, having recently been his team’s leading goal-scorer in the Nehru Cup. The club he then represented – JCT, once regarded as among India’s prized breeding grounds of footballing talents – is now nothing more than a chapter in history.
With goals against Nepal and Bhutan, he emerged as his team’s joint-leading scorer, but it didn’t result in a silverware. Yet, signs of his indomitable mentality were shown only a couple of months later, when banking on his four goals, India lifted the AFC Challenge Cup title. Three of those four goals came in the final, against a full-strength Tajikistan team, who had conceded all but one goal prior to the final in that competition.
From a broader perspective, Chhetri’s hat-trick helped India qualify for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 1984. For a moment, the cricket-crazed crowd of Delhi knew nothing more than unbridled jubilation. That, the Gambhirs and Sehwags had unceremoniously lost a Test series against Sri Lanka only a day ago, was of little significance. At that very moment, had a journalist asked anyone at random from the Dr Ambedkar Stadium crowd to define a hero, the answer would possibly have been – Sunil Chhetri.
Houghton was asked to describe the latest star of his team, to which the Englishman replied “Sunil never gives up” – a statement that still holds true.
When Things Didn’t Go as Planned...
The world, for Chhetri, was where the ball was – at his feet – except that all of these three elements are ephemeral. Having garnered interest from reputed European teams like Leeds United and Celtic, he would finalise a move to England’s Queens Park Rangers, only for his work permit to be denied, owing to India not being a part of the top 70 nations in FIFA’s rankings.
A subsequent move to the USA's Kansas City Wizards would prove to be more of an exercise in public relations over anything else, as the Secunderabad-born player would only make two cameo appearances, one of them coming in a friendly against Manchester United.
...Chhetri Didn’t Stop Believing
The glitz of the States was followed by a rather unglamorous move to Chirag United, but that wouldn’t deter Sunil. Instead, he went on to score twice in India’s historic comeback to Asia’s pinnacle competition – once against Bahrain and once against a star-studded South Korea.
In the same year, Chhetri was handed captaincy of the national team, and having missed it by a whisker three years ago, he led India to SAFF Championships glory, while also scoring seven goals to create a new record.
The Solitary Constant That Never Stops
Since then, the Indian skipper, making himself synonymous with the tag of a ‘leader’, has won numerous accolades for the Indian team, while also breaking countless records, including Bhutia’s tally of 82 goals, which once looked unbreachable.
Currently, with 92 goals, he is fourth on the list of leading goal-scorers in men’s international football, behind only the two GOATs in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, alongside Iran’s Ali Daei.
The National Football League is now a thing of the past. Bob Houghton stepped aside from management over a decade ago. Some of his students are now established in coaching and administrative roles. Some, we have lost track of. Vanished into thin air.
Then, there is the 39-year-old who is perpetually determining transience.
In the rapidly changing world of Indian football, the only constant, time and again, has been the Sunil Chhetri constant.