Floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee
Born on 3rd August 1984
Sunil Chhetri came from the town of Secunderabad in Andhra Pradesh. At 5 ft 7 inches tall, he didn't live up to the traditional yardstick that a striker's ability is judged by. He wasn't gifted physically, he wasn't lightning quick and neither was he the greatest dribbler of the ball.
Even his coaches in the early phase of his career had their reservations about him breaking into the team. His coach at Mohun Bagan, Subrata Bhattacharyya remarked after seeing him at trials in 2002,
"Sunil was short, and didn’t evoke thoughts that he could score."
Fast forward to today, Chhetri stands head and shoulders above his predecessors and toe-to-toe in international goals with the greatest of all time, Lionel Messi and just behind Ali Mabkhout and Cristiano Ronaldo.
At various points throughout his career, Chhetri had to adapt. He made up for his lack of physique with swift movement off the ball and timely runs past defenders. To compensate for his dribbling, he learnt how to dodge towering defenders. To prolong his career, he even went vegan.
At the age of just 19, he trialed for Mohun Bagan, which is one of the most prestigious football clubs in India. After having almost passed up on the opportunity, he was given a three-year contract with their senior team.
Most of his early years were spent as a second-fiddle to Baichung Bhutia. The first big opportunity to impress coaches came when Bhutia was out injured before a match against Pakistan. Although he didn't start, he proved to be a super-sub and scored in the 65th minute.
From not having a place in the XI, he rose to become the first name on the sheet. It wasn't without the usual share of struggles. Scouts outside of India were eyeing him and he did sign on for Kansas City Wizards of the USA and Sporting Lisbon in Portugal.
However, game time was hard to come by and he barely ever broke into their XI. Risking his career by leaving European football, he made the move to Bengaluru FC, a newly formed team in the I-League. Here too, he had to change his game.
Coach Ashley Westwood had him play on the left, a position he was a complete stranger to. Chhetri, now 30 years of age, switched his diet in order to sustain himself and took all criticism in his stride and moulded his game to the team's requirement.
Bengaluru won the I-League in their inaugural season itself and then again in 2015-16. Sunil had prolific seasons and cemented himself as one of the modern greats of Indian Football.
For India so far, he has netted 64 international goals and earned the most number of caps (118), which has won him the AIFF Player of the Year six times- 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2018–19. He has also helped India be crowned champions of the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, which secured qualification to India's first AFC Asian Cup in 27 years.
Under his leadership, Indian Football continues to grow- The team has climbed to a ranking of 97 in 2018 from 173 in 2015. As the craze of football grows in India and as the stature of footballers grows in India, so does the legend of Sunil Chhetri.
This story was first published in ThisDay.app.