Mumbai JUNE 22,
After his tournament-winning exploits in the Intercontinental Cup at home recently, Sunil Chhetri was compared to a certain Benjamin Button. The character, played by Hollywood actor Brad Pitt in the 2008 movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, aged in reverse. “Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have liked the comparison,” Chhetri says with a chuckle. “But it sounds good.”
It’s easy to see why. He is just a month shy of turning 34, but is fitter, faster and more muscular than ever before. It’s an age at which once-quick, mobile frontmen move inside into less-demanding central roles to prolong their careers. But for the past few years, Chhetri has starred as a wide forward, in a position which puts as much of a premium on work-rate as it does on goals scored.Still, the 2017-18 season was his most prolific ever, as he scored 20 goals for his club Bengaluru FC, helping it clinch the Super Cup and make the Indian Super League final. In his last 10 internationals for India, he has found the net an astonishing 13 times, a spree which first guided India to 2019 Asian Cup qualification and then secured the Intercontinental Cup during which he hammered eight in four matches.
“It’s a myth…when they say you can do certain things only when you are younger… It’s a myth,” Chhetri declares. “What experience does is that you understand what’s not good for you. When you are younger, you want to do everything, you are full of energy and it is kind of stupid. When you are older you tend to clearly understand what you need, more than what you want. All these things come together when you are 30… or whichever age it works for you. For me it was 30.”
Such an outlook — the expressions of which often appear with philosophical undertones — coupled with hard work have been Chhetri’s hallmarks in his decade-and-a-half-long professional career. Things never came easy to him despite being anointed heir apparent to the great Bhaichung Bhutia fairly early. Until he joined BFC in 2013, he rarely completed a full club season, either because of injuries or trips abroad.
These foreign sojourns — to Kansas City Wizards in the United States and Sporting Lisbon ‘B’ in Portugal — mostly ended in failure. An opportunity to join English club Queens Park Rangers was scuttled after he failed to secure a work permit. In fact, it was not until 2012-13 that he tasted I-League success, playing in the second half of Churchill Brothers’ winning campaign. (He does have a winner’s medal with Dempo in 2009-10, but he left for the US mid-season).
Yet, here he is, seemingly enriched by the very experiences which would have broken most, possessed by boundless youthful zeal.“My hunger to score a goal now is the same it was at 17,” he says. “I would not say that because I’m a leader and I want to score more. I just love scoring. It probably doesn’t look like it when I score and don’t celebrate. But it is the single most important thing in my life. It gives me the happiness that nothing else gives. It’s one of immense joy. “I don’t take anything in my life for granted. I have worked really hard. I don’t want to miss out on anything because I didn’t work hard. If somebody is better than me even after me working hard, that’s fine. But I would really regret if I missed out on anything because I didn’t work hard.” The success this discipline has brought him is clearly evident. Chhetri recently won his 100th India cap and is the country’s record goal-scorer at both the club and international levels. The latter mark — 64 goals according to AIFF records — was bandied about and he was even cheekily placed on par with Lionel Messi in second place and one rung below Cristiano Ronaldo in the list of highest active goal-scorers.
Chhetri, though, isn’t someone to lose perspective.
Mumbai JUNE 22,