Sunil Chhetri defies age and conditions to produce a masterclass
A huge banner tied across the West Block Blues Stand read: ‘Immortal No 11’. It was a heartfelt tribute to Sunil Chhetri by the fans, who cheered every move the Indian captain made on the field.
Some of them invaded the turf multiple times trying to get close to Chhetri even as he was leading India’s 4-0 buccaneering against Pakistan during the SAFF Championship match at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium.
What makes Chhetri a crowd-puller, then? He is 38, a stage when players generally think of pursuing less stressful options than playing football and follow rigid fitness plans.
But his performance on the field still does not have any reflection of his age. Last Saturday, India conquered Lebanon, a team that stands higher on FIFA Rankings, 2-0 in the Intercontinental Cup final at Odisha, and it was Chhetri who put the team on the track to win with the first goal.
The situation was no different on a rain-blanched Wednesday at Bengaluru. Crowd that filled the stadium to the rafters did not want anything less than a win, and Chhetri could not have missed that vibe.
The whole India vs Pakistan narrative that has been running for decades now too might have fuelled Chhetri’s desire to own the grand stage. He had offered us a peek at that feeling inside of him.
“Before the Pakistan match, whenever we met the boys, it was all hunky dory. Even when I was in Pakistan once or twice… we were all fine and friendly. They speak Punjabi and we speak Punjabi, the moment the whistle blows I don’t know what happens,” Chettri had said in an ISL video.
“It’s by default, just the sense of anyone but them. Maybe it’s ingrained in our upbringing as Indians and I’m pretty sure they will say the same thing. The hostility, the fact that we don’t want to lose against them comes in,” he added.
Chhetri is an apex predator with a natural sense for the goal. 90 goals from 138 matches for India will vouch for that, and the striker is now 4th on the all time highest international goalscorer list behind Cristiano Ronaldo (123), Ali Daei (109) and Lionel Messi (103).
That instinct was on full view when he scored the first goal against Pakistan last night. Pakistan player Abullah Iqbal pushed the ball back to goalkeeper Saqib Hanif and Chhetri followed that pass like a cheetah hunting a deer in those Kruger videos.
38 became a mere number for Chhetri at that moment and for many of us too who still adores a 20 something man who made his India debut against the same opponent in Quetta.
Perturbed by Chhetri’s burst towards him Hanif erred in clearing the ball and the Indian needed no second invitation to capitalise on the chance gifted to him.
The two ensuing penalty kicks might have been a canter for someone with Chhetri’s skills. Thousands of mobile cameras opened their eyes in the stands to freeze that Chhetri moment, and for some time to come that frame will be seen on several lock-screen and home screen backgrounds.
But he did not sound cocky despite hammering in a hat-trick. There was no hyperbole but he assessed the whole scenario rather logically. Perhaps, it was the only time his age showed on the night.
“More happy that we kept a clean sheet, that was our first target and very happy to be back at the fortress (Kanteerava Stadium is home to BFC in ISL).”
“But in international football, getting goals is not easy irrespective of where you are playing, whom you are playing. But we have a lot to improve as matches from hereon will be tough, and we are aware of the areas to improve,” Chhetri said after the match against Pakistan.
That’s a rather fearsome focus on perfection. At 38, how long Chhetri can place himself on that rigorous road? A time will come when Chhetri will have to walk into the inevitable sunset that awaits all sportspersons, and we are hearing many names like Ishan Pandita as his possible replacements.
But that topic can wait. For now, let’s enjoy this dreamy wayfaring with Chhetri!
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