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Sunil Chhetri – The Man who scored a goal in every Indian’s heart !

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India won the ICC Cricket World Cup in 1983, igniting a spirit for sports within the entire nation. Everyone from that generation dreamt of being the next Gavaskar or Amarnath or Kapil Dev. Then came the Tendulkar’s, Dravid’s, Dhoni’s and Kohli’s. The game cricket became synonymous to religion in India and why not ! We were the best in the sport.

Regardless, Football has been historically a rich sport especially in the Eastern part of India. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have scripted one of the best derbies in the history of the sport globally.

While most of India was busy with a bat in hand, a certain youngster from Secunderabad was planning to dribble in way into football history. That youngster was none other than Sunil Chhetri. Who knew the extent of his momentous achievements which were to come in the years to come by.

Sunil Chhetri became India’s Football Talisman (Image Courtesy : Twitter.com)

Sunil started his journey of the beautiful game very early on during his childhood days. The son of a Army Brat, Sunil always had the discipline ingrained in him which enabled him to shine even at an early age. After scoring tons of goals in his amateur journey, Sunil joined City FC in Delhi at just 17 years of age. This was the first stage of professional football where the youngster started showing the potential of greatness within him.

One day, Chhetri was invited to a trial to the mighty Mohun Bagan within an year of his professional career. He went thinking it was for the reserve team but the club from Bengal had already understood his talents and thought they were suitable for the first team.

The Youngster signed for Mohun Bagan for his first National League season (Image Courtesy : Twitter.com)

His first season in 2002-03 was a difficult one but Sunil stuck to his beliefs and kept developing his game alongside legends like Bhutia. Sunil scored 4 goals that season for Mohun Bagan as they finished 7th in the table. In the next two seasons combined, the forward was only able to match his tally of the 02-03 season with 4 goals in them two season combined.

In 2005, Sunil Chhetri took his next step in his development of the game when he joined JCT from the National Football League based in Ludhiana. He scored thrice in his first season as JCT finished in 6th place that season. It was in the Santosh Trophy though where Sunil really announced himself with two hat-tricks against Orissa and Railways. His stinct for Delhi in that period made gave him a significant boost.

(Image Courtesy : Twitter.com)

India U-20 gave a national team call-up to Sunil back in 2004 SAF Games where he made his debut against hosts Pakistan and scored a couple of goals against Bhutan. Having impressed during the tournament, Sunil made his senior team debut for India in 2005 and scored his first national team goal against Pakistan.

Sunil’s performances caught the eye of many possible suitors in Europe with him being linked to Leeds United at one point, but the dream move never materialized. Later that summer in 2008, Sunil made his move back to Bengal, this time to East Bengal.

The forward scored on his debut match against Chirag United. Sunil also played a crucial role in the Federation Cup that season, helping knockout his former team JCT before being beaten by his other former club Mohun Bagan where Sunil missed a decisive penalty in the shootouts.

The 2008 SAFF Championship and the following AFC Challenge Cup is when Sunil started taking big strides in his international career. His goals in both tournaments were crucial including the final of the AFC Challenge Cup where he scored a hat-trick against Tajikistan which enabled India to lift the cup.

Midway through the 2008-09 season, Coventry City showed huge interest on the Indian star offering him an extended trial at the club. The trial was a real hammer-blow for Sunil where Coventry decided not to sign him as well as he lost his contract with East Bengal.

It was in 2010 when it finally happened for Sunil. His dream to play abroad was about to be realised as Kansas City Wizards of the MLS in United States offered him a contract in March 2010. He made his debut in the Lamar Hunt Cup where he picked up a yellow card.

Sunil became the First Indian to play for Kansas City FC (Image Courtesy : Twitter.com)

He was involved in the midseason friendly against the mighty Manchester United in somewhat controversial fashion within the club since he hadn’t actually played a league match yet. In February 2011, Sunil had left the MLS on mutual consent.

He made stincts with Chirag United, Sporting Club de Portugal B, Churchill Brothers and Mohun Bagan again in the next two seasons which were a difficult part of his footballing journey.

In 2013, Sunil’s career took a great turn when he joined I-League new comers Bengaluru FC. He scored an incredible 14 goals and made 7 assists in just 23 matches that season which led Bengaluru to their first ever I-League title. In the upcoming season, Sunil played a great role in the Durand Cup and Federation Cup scoring goals in decisive games.

While Sunil was banging goals in the National Team as well as the I-League, ISL franchise Mumbai City FC signed him for the 2015 ISL tournament for a record fee of INR 1.2 Cr which made him the most expensive Indian player in the ISL auctions so far.

He scored his first goal against Delhi Dynamos and followed up with a goal against FC Goa. Sunil made history in the following game becoming the first Indian player ever to score a hat-trick in the ISL against Northeast United.

He scored 7 goals that season for the Islanders. National commitments and signing of Diego Forlan and Sony Norde kept Sunil’s involvement limited in the next two ISL tournaments for Mumbai City.

Sunil Chhetri became an instant fan favorite at Mumbai (Image Courtesy : Twitter.com)

While at loan back to Bengaluru FC, Sunil’s goals helped the club win a second I-League title in 3 seasons in 2016. He also scored crucial goals in the AFC Cup where Bengaluru reached the quarterfinals where his goal against Kitchee being the most iconic moment of the tournament.

Sunil scored 46 goals in the next three season for Bengaluru FC who had also become part of now a season-long Indian Super League. He won the “Hero of the League” award in 2018.

His national team achievements were beyond anyone in an Indian jersey. He captained India to a 13 match unbeaten run, the 2019 AFC Cup qualification where India topped the group stage.

In 2018, Sunil scored a hat-trick against Chinese Taipei at the Mumbai Football Arena which enabled Indian football to take another glorious step towards massive support from a huge chunk of population towards the sport.

As it stands, Sunil Chhetri has scored 72 goals in just 115 caps for India, making him the second active top goal scorer for his country in the World and only behind the legend Cristiano Ronaldo.

His impact in the game, especially National Team football has been enormous. His skill on the ball, his quickness with it and his preciseness when he strikes the ball has been a treat to the eyes of every Indian supporter over the years.

The brace that took Sunil Chhetri over Messi in the active goal scorers record (Image Courtesy : AFC Asian Cup Twitter)

He has rallied a huge fan following over the years to pursue their passion for football. He has inspired team mates around him to achieve great success for Indian football. He is also now a brand ambassador for PUMA with whom he signed a massive 3 year deal. Sunil was voted the favourite player for AFC Asian Cup of 2019 and was awarded that merit on 1st August 2020, a couple of days before his birthday.

As the Indian Footballing Legend turns 36 today, his achievements in the Indian National Team as well as for Bengaluru FC will be remembered by generations to come. He inspired millions of kids to kick the ball and realize a new dream which will always be his legacy to the sport in India. Happy Birthday Captain ! India Loves You !

Also Read: Sandesh Jhingan – Gladiator of modern Indian Football

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