It will always be about Sunil Chhetri

For a good part of the last decade in Indian football, the burden of being the focal point of the men’s national team has been shouldered by Sunil Chhetri.

Captain Sunil Chhetri in action for India.   -  Getty Images

"It was never about me. It will never be about me.”

Sunil Chhetri was adamant in his reply to repeated queries on if he will provide the magic touch against Bangladesh for India.

For a good part of the last decade, the burden of being the focal point of the men’s national team has been shouldered by Chhetri.

When he scored India’s goal in the loss to Oman, the post-mortem report identified the dearth of a secondary striker in the national side to support Chhetri. An illness ruled him out of the match in Qatar, where the team pulled off a fighting 0-0 draw, and Chhetri’s name still couldn’t be kept out of the discussion.

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Apple of Calcutta's eye | Sunil Chhetri has represented both the legacy Kolkata clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan early on in his career, and is married to the daughter of Subrata Bhattacharya, a former Indian football great from this region.   -  AFP

 

Even before a ball is kicked in the Indian Super League, his name is synonymous on the lips of opposing teams. Chennaiyin boss John Gregory mentioned his name on three separate occasions on the team’s media day earlier this month. Gregory wants his young midfielder and Chhetri's international teammate Anirudh Thapa to step up and lead the side when and if the 35-year-old player calls it a day.

And so quite naturally, the theme of the pre-match affair centered around the striker. When away from the questions, Chhetri kept himself busy by doodling on a piece of paper on the dais. And while taking the reporters on, Chhetri was at his usual self reminding everyone that he is just one piece of a larger picture in Igor Stimac’s team.

"If three people mark, even four, we will be happy. We can even have tea together," Chhetri said on the prospect of being marked tightly by Bangladesh. "It will be a 10 vs six advantage. You need to understand that it's not about me. Tomorrow, you will come to know about someone like Udanta (Singh), Ashique (Kuruniyan), (Abdul Samad) Sahal or Manvir (Singh)."

A local journalist rightly pointed out that the team had played a ‘brilliant’ match in Chhetri’s absence against Qatar and followed it up by asking if his return would now yield a facile win. To which, the striker quipped, “It was because of my absence the team played so well. The players keep reminding me.”

And they kept coming.

A laugh crept out from one end of the room, when another reporter expected India’s all-time top-scorer to come up with a hat-trick against a team which is ranked 83 places below the side.

A slightly embarrassed Chhetri said, “Why just three, why not six?” He then went on to say that his past goals don’t matter at the moment but that he will be feeding off the experience he has accounted for over the years.

On Tuesday, most of the supporters who throng the stands, too, will want a piece of Chhetri. He has represented both the legacy Kolkata clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan early on in his career, and is married to the daughter of Subrata Bhattacharya, a former Indian football great from this region. He also returns to the Salt Lake Stadium for the first time in national colours since 2011. Chhetri scored twice in that game.

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Sunil Chhetri returns to the Salt Lake Stadium for the first time in national colours since 2011. He scored twice in that game.   -  AFP



On leading the side in front of a sold-out crowd, the Bengaluru FC player said, “My wife and immediate family always travel [with me]. I feel good playing in Kolkata. The buzz. It brings me so much happiness playing for my country in front of a large audience. It’s a great feeling.”

One scribe even labelled Chhetri the ‘Indian (Lionel) Messi’, for his goal-scoring exploits, when posing a question to Stimac.

Bangladesh coach Jamie Day was asked the pertinent question as to how his team would stop Chhetri from adding to his 72 international goals. His skipper Jamal Bhuyan recounted the time he shared the same pitch as Chhetri in 2013 in the SAFF Cup.

In that game, Chhetri had scored a 95th minute goal to deny the Red and Green a win. Then a year later, he scored in the 92nd minute to level the scores in a friendly as one Bangladesh journalist previously reminded Chhetri about his habit of punishing the side in the past.

In the training session late on the eve of the match, the camera lenses were focused on one man. As Chhetri walked over to the byline to begin his jogs and stretches, a group of photographers moved over to one side zooming their equipment towards him.

There is no escape for Chhetri.

For the time being, it will always be about Sunil Chhetri.

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