From his days playing for the Army Public School in New Delhi to Indian football’s MVP, Sunil Chhetri has picked up quite a few tricks and a little wisdom to go with them
By Siddhanth Aney
Sunil Chhetri is in a place all by himself. At a little over 31, he has never looked sharper on the football field in the 15 or so years that I have seen him play. Back then all of us played the same school circuit in Delhi—making the rounds at trials—hoping to play for the state at some level, or for the many clubs that exist, at least on paper, in various parts of the city.
I first heard of Chhetri through my brother, who attended the same school—the Army Public School, Dhaula Kuan. The two had a lot in common. Both were relatively small, but surprisingly powerful. They were quick too. And had a doggedness that makes forwards annoying to defenders like nothing else; the fitness and persistence to nip at the heels of defenders when not in possession, constantly putting the defence under pressure and often forcing a mistake. As a full back, I hated playing against my brother. He was younger, faster, more gifted. He was better, and I was proud and resentful of the fact in equal measure. So, when he came to me and said, “Man, there’s this guy in school, Chhetri, he’s the real deal,” I had to go check him out.
It’s too bad for my brother that he wasn’t a scout, but his assessment of Chhetri’s potential, back when he was just about in his mid-teens, was spot on. If you get on YouTube and watch the goals that Chhetri has scored for India, you will find a mixed bag. But what will stand out is the striker’s unwavering dedication to being as close to the ball as he possibly can. So, when his team is in possession, he always wants it. For Bengaluru FC (BFC) in the I-League you will find him at the edge of his own penalty area at times, making the challenge to break down an opposition move and then transitioning his team from defence into attack. When the opposition have the ball he is always chasing.
When I met Chhetri the day after Bengaluru’s 3–0 home win over Shillong Lajong, he said, “Bhai, I had nothing left after the game. I clocked over 11 kilometres and when we got in the dressing room, I knew I had given everything. If you can go back from every game feeling like that, win or lose, you know you’ve done your job.”
With 20 minutes still on the clock, the game was already in the bag. Twice, when coach Ashley Westwood called in replacements, I expected Chhetri to give way for a younger player to get some game time and for the star to get in an early shower. Both times I was wrong. And not only did he stay on, you could see the effort he was putting in. Till the final whistle, BFC wanted to get another goal and Chhetri’s desire was second to none on the field.
Looking back to those days when we were all living the lives of carefree kids enjoying varying degrees of privilege, it is immediately clear why Chhetri occupies the master bedroom of a very solitary tower today. Back then, he was good; certainly much better than me. But there were many others, my brother included, who were at a similar level. When I mentioned to our Australian photographer, Darren Centofanti, that my brother is now an Australian, Chhetri piped up immediately. “He was a really talented guy,” he said. “Top footballer.” It has been almost two decades since the two of them played together in school. Today, one plays occasionally for amateur side North Sydney FC. The other is captain of India and, by some way, the best footballer in the country. The top footballer Chhetri remembers is a distant memory. But in Chhetri’s compliment to my brother also lies the foundation of his own success. And it all began in the last years of high school.
Those years represent, to me, the first taste of the temptation that Christians pray not to be led into. Temptations of the body and the mind. By the time you turn 18, in a teeming, seething, raging metropolis like Delhi, there are choices to be made. Whatever world you belong to, those choices are never easy. So, while many of his peers made the choice to use football as a springboard to college, and then forgot about the sport in varying degrees, Chhetri made the vastly more difficult choice. Football was to be his life. Not part of his life, not a springboard, but all of it. At the time, in Delhi alone, there were at least five other boys of similar age and with similar means, who could have gone on to play for India. It is unsurprising that Chhetri is the only one who made it.
While the rest of us were out on weeknights chasing girls and experimenting with substances, Chhetri focused on his trade. From the time he represented India at the Asian School Championships in 2001, there was no looking back. Like us, Chhetri too had not been to the Tata Football Academy. Back then, that was the only place in the country where anyone taught you how to play. For the rest there were endless rounds of the stadium, followed by a game. Drills were few and far between. Technical and tactical training was unheard of. You learnt what you taught yourself.
“The first time I had a coach was probably when I went to Mohun Bagan,” Chhetri says. “Back then I was on a salary of about `50,000 a month. I used to dream of buying a Honda Civic. It was my dream car. I used to pray to God to, one day, get me a salary of two lakh a month. Those were simpler times.”
But the result of the simplicity of those times is evident in the ranking of the national team. Entire generations of footballers have come and gone without anyone being taught the basics of the game. Chhetri’s colleague, Gouramangi Singh, went down to Australia for a part-trial, part-training stint with Melbourne Heart FC back in 2010. By then he was a full international and regarded as the best central defender in the country.
“We don’t learn what kids there learn at the age of 10 or 12,” said Gouramangi. “As a result, even though I was a relatively senior player, it took me a while to figure out some basics. Sure, I had been playing so I could figure it out, but I was thinking of the difference that kind of training would have made to all of us as players. It is incredible that we completely skip the most basic things.”
Chhetri feels the same and is delighted that the young players emerging from the backwaters of India today will not have to face many of these handicaps. “The best thing about the ISL is the kind of awareness and structures that will be built because of it,” he says. “I am really greedy, so I always want more and more. But I am fairly happy with how the younger players are shaping up. I think we have a great pool of talent to choose from.” Chhetri cites the SAFF Cup as an example of what he is talking about. “We came to know about the dates while we were playing the ISL,” he says. “The club gave us a few days of rest in agreement with Stephen [Constantine, national team head coach]. Our bodies needed the rest. It wasn’t usual but the camp began without us—me, Robin [Singh] and Eugene [Lyngdoh]. The day we joined the camp we were given the news that Sandesh Jhingan, Francis Fernandes and Cavin Lobo had pulled out because of injury. There were a lot of young faces around. This was good and bad. Bad because we had just played and beaten Guam and I was hoping that we would be able to use the same starting XI and build up a bit of stability in the side. Missing these three guys was a setback. On the other hand I thought, Okay, this is the SAFF Cup and it’s a good chance for some of the younger players to get blooded, so that was good. I was happy to see Anas Edathodika in the national camp after a while. But then two days later he pulled his hamstring and I was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ So, when the tournament began, we weren’t exactly in an ideal place because of all the injuries; but we were confident.
“Then, in the first game of the tournament Robin scored two lovely goals [against Sri Lanka] and then bam, his knee goes,” recalls Chhetri. “It seemed like we were not going to get any luck going our way. Apart from Arnab [Mondal], Eugene and myself everyone was a new boy on the international scene. Gurpreet [Singh Sandhu, goalkeeper] had just played a couple of games, Pritam [Kotal] and Narayan [Das] are fairly new, Augustine is a senior player but he had not played for the national team. Aibor [Khongjee] was not playing either. Bikash Jairu on the left is another young guy… Rowlin Borges… Holicharan Narzary… so there were a lot of new faces and the team was, essentially, playing together for the first time in competition. This was worrying because there were some difficult games at the SAFF Cup for us. Afghanistan were considered favourites in the tournament and then there were the Maldives, who have always given us a tough time.”
For those of us watching, and perhaps for the team too, only the Afghans were a real worry. We were fairly certain of making it to the final, where our neighbours from the northwest would be waiting. The Afghans had a majority of their players playing in leagues outside and they were quite confident—cocky even. At the team hotel they had made preparations for a party after the game—presumably to celebrate. They were aware of the inexperience of the Indian squad and the injury worries. The hosts, despite being regional powerhouses and perennial big-brothers, were the underdogs.
“Before the game I told my players that this would be the only chance we had to win this trophy proper,” Chhetri recalls. “It was Afghanistan’s last SAFF Cup (they migrate to the new Central Asian region) and if they won they would have bragging rights forever. I think it worked,” he laughs.
Chhetri has had this leadership role half-thrust on him by virtue of the fact that he started playing professionally when he was just 17. This meant that when the previous generation, led by the inimitable Bhaichung Bhutia, retired from football, Chhetri was the senior pro. He embraces his patriarchal side. When he refers to his team, whether it’s Mumbai City FC of the ISL, BFC or India, he calls them “my players”. On the field he is always talking, always trying to set things in motion and always trying to motivate the other players. There was a time when he would get frustrated. The difference in ability—or vision at the very least—can be glaring at the international level. But Chhetri realised it was his responsibility to carry the team as far as he could by both his play and his behaviour. “If I get frustrated, and it is natural so I can understand you asking the question, what good does that do me? What good does that do my team?” he asks. “At the end of the day we are going to win or lose together. Sunil Chhetri scoring a hattrick is pointless if the team loses. Man, I love getting goals, but I would trade all my goals if that would mean my team winning.
“I am concerned, yes. But the role that I have for the national team, I cannot be frustrated. If the young players see me abusing, screaming, it’s not going to help the team. The stability will come, but it will take time,” he says when I ask about the panic that seems to grip the defenders when the opposition comes forward. “If you compare the current lot to, for example, Deepak Mondal and Mahesh Gawli or Anwar Ali and Gouramangi, the seniors had time. They played games back to back. I was really happy with the game we played with Sandesh, Arnab, Pritam and Narayan. Now, because Sandesh is missing, the balance gets thrown off. It’s not easy. Until we have the same back-four playing games back to back, the stability won’t come. And we need to play more games, against better teams. The bare minimum of 13 days in the year needs to be utilised for sure.”
Characteristically, Chhetri is gung-ho about the future of football in the country. In a sense it is his belief that if he could make it, with no training to speak of and no one to show him a clearly charted path, there is no reason why 100 others cannot. For Chhetri, a lot of it boils down to that basic idea of giving it your all. “It is such a great feeling, man, knowing you have nothing left to give. So if all of us, the players, the AIFF, the clubs, the media, the corporate house, if we can all sit back at the end of the day and say we have given it our all, I think Indian football will, for sure, be in a better place.”
At a time when the world is getting increasingly complex, Chhetri speaks about life with disarming simplicity. And he seems to live by the ideas he voices. When we set up a time to shoot, he told me he would pick me up and was at my hotel exactly when he said he would be. He came alone, driving his now not-so-new Audi and waited on the corner while I came down.
After the shoot he drove us to Matteo’s, a popular coffee shop just off Brigade Road, so we could chat. If you’re at all familiar with Bengaluru’s traffic, you’ll know this is a big deal. When we were done he didn’t suggest I hop in an auto or walk the couple of kilometres back to my place, but insisted on dropping me off himself. I asked him how he balances being the first Indian football celebrity with this quite real persona. He laughed. “I love hearing the first Indian footballer line,” he says. So he does have an ego, but just seems to have figured out when and how much to feed it. “Bhai, my dad was an army man, just like yours,” he says. “He has always told me there will be a time when all of this will be in the past, when no one will know my name. So it is important for me to be thankful for all this love, all this fame, and know that humility will be my biggest strength.”
Chhetri lives a life all by himself. His colleagues cannot relate to any of this, for no fault of their own. A small example is his Twitter following. Chhetri has 1,75,000 followers on the social media network. While this is just a drop compared to, let’s say, an Indian cricketer, it is still easily more than double the combined total of the rest of the national team. He shoots ad campaigns with Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, has an endorsement deal with Nike and is managed by the same PR firm that handles some of the biggest names in Indian sport. Yet for this interview, and for several others that Chhetri does all the time, there were no demands for hotel suites and business-class tickets, no layers of handlers to coordinate every detail with, no endless waiting in some hotel lobby. There is an inherent simplicity bordering on wisdom that Chhetri exudes. And that comes from not believing he is any different. Two minor incidents exemplify what I am trying to convey.
The first had to do with Chhetri’s teammate and friend, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, who hit the headlines after the ISL auction when he broke the crore barrier in his first season playing the tournament. For a kid from the Northeast with simple tastes and few needs, that’s a lot of money to spend. Lyngdoh can hardly be described as flashy, but he does like cars. So he told Chhetri he wanted to buy an Audi too. They went, did the drives, picked the colour and were about to sign on the dotted line when Chhetri had a moment of clarity that Lyngdoh will thank him for, maybe, in times to come. Chhetri told him that he had driven his expensive ride a total of 15,000 kilometres in the four years since he’s bought it. And that in a city like Bengaluru, it makes no sense. Instead, he should wait till he’s done playing, or has to move to another club, and decide then.
The second involves a larger entity, the Football Players Association of India (FPAI). Its current president is Renedy Singh, Chhetri’s senior in the national team and a widely respected footballer. When the FPAI started out players like Chhetri gave it a wide berth even though it purported to look after players’ interests. Chhetri admits he was one of those who sat on the sidelines and criticised the body for, well, pretty much everything. But when he was invited to sit on the board in December 2015, he finally decided it was time to either do something himself or shut up about it. And so he attended a board meeting where everyone might not have been on the same page, but at least they wanted to get the same things done.
“As the captain of the national team and the best player in the country it’s important for us to have Sunil on board,” says Renedy. “We want to create a body that represents the interests of every footballer in the country, right from Sunil, down to the players playing in local leagues across the nation. This is not a body for me or for Bhaichung Bhutia or for Sunil Chhetri, it is so that footballers, many of who have no education and no voice, can be heard as one and their needs be considered paramount.”
Chhetri concurs. He says the first thing they have to do is to convey to the players they are not in the FPAI to promote their own interests, or to play petty politics. “At the end of the day, the reality is that a club is not going to risk not paying me,” he says. “But that is not the case for a kid banking on 20,000 a month to play in the senior division in Delhi, for example. If he doesn’t get paid the impact is massive on his family and the FPAI is the only way he can get help. Now that I am 30, I realise these things. And I realise if I can help, it is part of my job.” Chhetri has come a long way from Army Public School.
I remind him that he is, in fact, almost as old as me. “But I look young enough to be your son,” he laughs. We leave it at that.