At this point, it wouldn’t matter to Sunil Chhetri. He would have preferred a win or perhaps even a draw against Bahrain. But in India’s final game of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, the Bengaluru FC captain played in India colours for the 107th time, equalling Bhaichung Bhutia’s record of international appearances for the Blue Tigers.
Chhetri is India’s leading goal-scorer of all time, accumulating 67 goals in his career. Bhutia was the previous holder of this record. The impact they have had on Indian football is unquantifiable.
The two, colossal figures of Indian football, are both footballers that former Indian international midfielder Renedy Singh played with and he points out that both brought a single-mindedness to the job.
“They are similar with their obsession of winning,” said Singh. “When they were on the pitch, they only wanted to finish on the winning side. They’ve both brought that quality to the national team.”
In terms of playing style, the former midfielder said Chhetri and Bhutia differ in their approach towards goal. The Manipuri also spoke about the fact that Chhetri liked to operate in a dissimilar role to that of Bhutia.
“Bhaichung was a poacher,” said Singh. “He was always going into the box and once he was there, he would finish those chances off. Sunil is different – he likes to operate on the wing, come from outside the box, take a shot.”
Chhetri was also the only one in India’s 23-man squad in UAE to have played in the Asian Cup before. Both Chhetri and Bhutia had scored against Tajikistan to win the AFC Challenge Cup and qualify for the Asian Cup in 2011.
Eight years ago, a team consisting of Renedy, Chhetri, Subrata Paul, Gouramangi Singh and others took on Bahrain, Monday’s opponents, and lost 2-5. This time around, the result was a heart-breaking 0-1 defeat.
Chhetri scored in that clash while Bhutia was coming off an extended injury break. Singh said that both possessed that finishing touch, which Chhetri displayed against Thailand.
“That goal was a great finish,” he said. “That really lifted the team. Bhaichung was inspirational as well. There are a lot of occasions, but I remember a flying volley kick he scored against Turkmenistan at the Asian Games in South Korea.”
Singh, though, refused to compare the support cast for both players, stating that the current crop of internationals are from a different era compared to that of 2011 and earlier.
“These days, players are more tactically aware,” he said. “They don’t spend six months with the international team. They train week in, week out and train with ISL coaches. We saw in the Thailand game, they attack, they track back.”
Talking about Chhetri, Singh said that his longevity was a factor to consider. “At 34, he is not there to support. He is the main striker. He is playing at top fitness, at 100%.”
Singh also stated that IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri shouldn’t be forgotten, “Those two are also two of the greatest I’ve played with and they should also be a part of the discussion. Vijayan, he scored against Uzbekistan. See where they are now.
“Against the UAE too, he scored and we won when Sukhi sir (Sukhwinder Singh) was in charge of the team. That was a great effort on his part,” he added.
Both teams, Singh argued, could not be treated as a Chhetri or a Bhutia team. “Eight years ago, we could have scored more against Bahrain. My shot hit the bar, then came out. When we saw the replays, we saw that it was in.
“Today, they have more facilities and exposure. But Chhetri has always been a team man. Football was a team game, a game of eleven men back then and even now,” he added.