Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
Like every Indian kid growing up in the 1990s, Sunil Chhetri too wanted to be the next Sachin Tendulkar, Leander Paes or Bhaichung Bhutia. However, when an opportunity to be the ‘next big thing’ actually came about, he almost passed it off frivolously.
It was 2002 and the then 17-year-old, who was playing in the Delhi local league for the popular City Club, had received a call-up from legendary Kolkata club Mohun Bagan. So good was it to be true that he assumed it was for the Mohun Bagan SAIL Football Academy, where he would train for three years before making grand plans about his future. He spent his first week at the Kolkata maidan “chilling” and filling in for the big boys—Bhutia, Renedy Singh, Jose Ramirez Barreto—who were returning from summer vacation. Or so he thought. Till his father was summoned from Delhi.
Senior Chhetri, an armyman, took the train to Kolkata, and felt much rewarded for his troubles when he got to share the club tent with Shyam Thapa, whose backvolley goal against East Bengal in 1978 is counted among the finest in Indian football history. That high could perhaps only be overshadowed by what happened the next day, when his son was offered a three-year contract with the senior team. Turns out, Chhetri was still a minor and needed a guardian to supervise the signing.
Chhetri’s first pay cheque was of ₹75,000—his salary for three months—of which he withdrew ₹30,000 in cash and blew up at a Kolkata mall. It took his father’s intervention to calm the frenzy. “Since then, I started giving my salary to my father. I do it even now. He portions out pocket money for me every month. If I kept all my money, I would probably have 10 sports cars and no house to live in,” says the 34-year-old.
Cut to 2018, Chettri does have a few luxury cars, a bike and “at least 10 gadgets that I don’t need”, but has also built up appreciating assets, like a house at Bengaluru’s upscale Lavelle Road. And somewhere along the way, from the shadows of the Mohun Bagan heavyweights, he has turned into India’s highest-paid footballer with a ₹1.5 crore tag, earned maximum international caps (102) after Bhutia (104), and scored the highest number of goals for the country (64, tied second among active players with Argentina’s Lionel Messi). He’s as prolific in the domestic league too, leading his club Bengaluru FC to I-League titles in its debut season in 2013-14 and again in 2015-2016, to the runners-up position in the Indian Super League in 2017 and to the finals of the prestigious AFC Cup in 2016, the first for any Indian soccer outfit.
Despite the formidable CV, Chhetri philosophises: “Milestones don’t mean much. The more matches you win, the nearer are you to a loss. So every win means you have to work that much harder. It’s a catch-22 situation.” Which is why if you tell him that India has climbed to a ranking of 97 (as of October 2018) from 173 in 2015, he brushes it aside as a mere statistic. “We have definitely improved, the federation is doing better, infrastructure is better, we now have world-class football fields vouched for by former European players and ISL has brought in incredible changes. But, what we are chasing is so far that we can’t sit satisfied. There is a long way to go and a lot of work to be done.”
Hard work is a recurrent theme in a conversation with Chhetri, since it’s a mantra he has embraced to overcome his limitations. Unlike a modern striker, a Raheem Sterling or Kylian Mbappe for example, he is neither muscular nor well-built. Nor is he anywhere as tall as Olivier Giroud or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Even among his Indian predecessors, he neither possesses truckloads of talent like IM Vijayan, nor the sharp reflexes of Bhutia. But Chhetri has picked up the baton of being India’s most talismanic forward from the duo through his unstinting hard work. “He wants to stay just that little longer after training and even returns early from holidays,” says Albert Roca, a former Spanish footballer who was coach of Bengaluru FC for two years since 2016.
But being a workhorse isn’t just about training aimlessly. It’s about bringing discipline and meaning to a routine to maximise benefits to make every push-up count. Having spent time with American soccer team Kansas City Wizards in 2010 and the reserve team of Portuguese side Sporting Clube de Portugal in 2012, Chhetri picked up the best practices from the foreign outfits despite barely making to their starting lineups. And the focus shifted from mere onfield rituals to the peripheral life off it. Like eating smart, sleeping well.
Sunil Chhetri (left) has led his club Bengaluru FC to I-League titles in its debut season in 2013-2014 and again in 2015-2016, to the runners-up position in the Indian Super League in 2017 and to the finals of the prestigious AFC Cup in 2016 Image: Manjunath Kiran / AFP Photo / Getty Images
Noted football writer Novy Kapadia remembers the month he spent with Chhetri in TV studios for commentary during the soccer World Cup this year. While the rest of the team would eat whatever was served, Chhetri would make it a point to order grilled chicken from a designated place despite it being the off season. Or the time when Chhetri led the national team to victory in the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai in June, and the suburban hotel the team was staying in had baked a cake to celebrate the feat. While the footballer cut it, he barely swallowed crumbs. “Sunil has eliminated sugar from his diet. The earlier trend among Indian footballers was to enjoy the butter chicken today and perform an extra hour’s practice tomorrow. Sunil has changed that. His regimented life spans 365 days a year,” says Kapadia. Result? At 34, Chhetri is fitter, faster and as prolific as he was five years ago, scoring a hat-trick and a brace against Chinese Taipei and Kenya, respectively, in the Intercontinental Cup.
It’s a far cry from the time he joined Mohun Bagan as a “chubby-ish kid with the confidence of a Delhi boy”, as his then captain and former India international Renedy remembers him. His bicycle volley goal in a friendly match betrayed his class to Subrata Bhattacharya, the then coach and now his father-in-law, who pushed the club to bring him on board. And his touches did the same to Renedy and Bhutia, then India’s biggest star. “That apart, he was a fighter, who would never give up. Just like Bhaichung. Both of them are quite short, but still would never let go of an opportunity to get every airborne ball,” says Renedy.
Chhetri still isn’t the battering ram striker who beats every defender with his lightning-fast pace, like a Gareth Bale would do. Instead, he’s a calm presence inside the penalty box, great at sniffing openings, making shrewd passes with both feet and finishing off a move. He showed signs of composure early in his career IFA Shield final in 2003, when Mohun Bagan took on arch-rivals East Bengal. In a cliffhanger of a penalty shootout, with scores tied at 3-3, Chhetri, not even 20 then, stepped up and netted the ball.
Renedy and Bhutia also shaped up to be mentors for Chhetri both on and off the field. “You learn more by watching people instead of being lectured,” he says. So, not the cars they drove or the clothes they wore, he began to watch with a hawk’s eye what kept them relevant. “They were dedicated towards their game,” he noticed. In 2004, Alok Mukherjee, the Indian coach, was returning from the SAF Games in Islamabad, where Chhetri had scored twice in the semis. “I was on the flight with Mukherjee,” writes Kapadia in his book Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football, “...who said if Chhetri concentrates, he can have a good international career. Mukherjee was worried about his constant interactions over the mobile, which was then a novelty.” That Chhetri is India’s highest goal scorer is testimony to how he skillfully dodged distractions that could consume him.
Instructive to his rise in the formative years was a key life lesson Renedy and Bhutia had taught him. That with fame comes criticism, and both are equally fleeting. “They had seen me in the early days when being known was getting to my head, so they taught me the importance of being grounded. Neither fly high with adulation, nor be affected by criticism, they said,” says Chhetri. The lesson came in handy in 2016 when he led Bengaluru FC to the final of the AFC Cup in Doha, something he considers his biggest achievement as well as his most disappointing low, as his team lost the match to Iraq’s Air Force FC by a solitary goal. Now, he manages to joke about the match. “Had we won that,” he says, “I would probably have charged you for this interview.”
Chhetri is now repaying his debts to his seniors by passing on to his juniors what he’s learnt from them. As a captain, he doesn’t command respect in the dressing room, says Roca, but earns it. “Sunil bhai is very professional about his diet, his gymming, recovery sessions. Plus, he is a thinking footballer. I still remember his goal against Kyrgyzstan in the Asian Cup qualifier in 2017, where he picked up a ball from outside our box, ran across the field dribbling past a number of players, passed it to me outside the opponent’s box and then ran into the box to collect my chip and score,” says Jeje Lalpekhlua, a forward for Chennaiyin FC and Chhetri’s mate in the national team.
“ Milestones don’t mean much. the more you win, the nearer are you to a loss.”
It helps that Chhetri is passing through a happy and stable phase in life, having married his longtime girlfriend Sonam Bhattacharya last year and extending his contract with Bengaluru FC till 2021. “There was always much clarity in the Bengaluru FC setup; Chhetri has always been the fulcrum of the side,” says Siddhanth Aney, sports writer. His transition to an inveterate professional, which started under India’s national coach Bob Houghton in the mid-noughties, was complete under Bengaluru FC’s first coach Ashley Westwood, who, as Kapadia says, revolutionised the approach to the game.
Beyond the football field, Chhetri wears his stardom lightly. He isn’t one to harp on the “mine were the golden days” theme, so his friendship with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu or Udanta Singh for instance, both 10-odd years younger, comes as easy as that of his with Renedy. If you hear billowing laughter from the Bengaluru FC or the Indian dressing rooms, you can be sure Chhetri’s behind it. “Kaafi shaitan hai [He’s a mischief-maker],” testifies Renedy. So does Roca, “He’s among the louder ones, always laughing hard and having fun with the juniors.”
But it’s not just fun and games. Chhetri has frequently spoken up for juniors too, particularly young ones in need of resources. “Nowadays, I don’t have to pay for a single thing. Every sponsor offers them to me for free. But I don’t need these and I’m not being arrogant when I say this. Truth is, under-14 or-16 players in, say, Nagpur or Imphal would immensely benefit from those,” he says. “Don’t wait for kids to become a Sachin Tendulkar or a Sania Mirza before showering them with benefits.”
His advocacy for the game has extended to the fans too, when, this June he posted a video on social media exhorting them to come out and watch India play in the Intercontinental Cup. Criticise us, abuse us, but please do come and watch us, he pleaded with fans after barely 2,000 turned up for the semifinal. It wasn’t a PR exercise and no one, barring his good friend and Bengaluru FC media manager Kunaal Majgaonkar, knew of the video. “He is the one who cleans up my English and keeps correcting my language,” Chhetri says with a wink. “I asked him for a caption and he said this doesn’t need one.” The next match was a sellout.
What next after football? Chhetri doesn’t know. Commentary would be a good option, given his proficiency at it during the World Cup that even impressed the likes of veterans like Kapadia. “But nothing gives me the thrill of those 90 minutes,” he says.
One thing’s for sure: Chhetri will not drag his career once he feels it’s time. “There is a thin line between me wanting to keep going and me staying relevant for the team. The day I cross it, I will stop playing. After that, I will have to do something around the game. Because that’s the only thing I know,” he says. “Besides making mistakes with my English that is.”
Even off the field, Chhetri won’t let go of a ripping finish.