Former Indian football team coach Sukhwinder Singh said he had doubts about starting a 20-year-old Sunil Chhetri before handing the striker his international debut during a three-match friendly series against Pakistan in 2005.
Singh said he had “sleepless nights” choosing who would lead India’s attack in the opening match after striker Bhaichung Bhutia suffered an injury.
“It was a nightmare for me that Bhaichung [Bhutia] wasn’t available,” Singh was quoted as saying by the All India Football Federation. “It was in Pakistan, and I knew the pressure would be immense. I needed someone who had the trickery, didn’t have any fear, and had to be quick.”
“To be honest, Sunil wasn’t in my mind at all. He wasn’t my first option. I looked around and wondered as to who could fill in the vacuum. It was then I thought about him. But I had my doubts,” he added.
Since Chhetri had already played under Singh at JCT FC, the Punjab coach decided to hand him his first cap despite the striker’s short frame.
He said: “He was short, and in front of physically strong defenders at the international level, did he have a chance?”
“But I knew him. He played under my coaching in JCT and he had shown promises of what he could do on the field. So I backed my coaching instincts and put him in. And he didn’t fail me,” he maintained.
Chhetri broke the deadlock but his goal was cancelled out as Pakistan drew the match 1-1. The visitors secured a 1-0 win before the hosts bounced back to beat India 3-0 in the final of the series, winning on goal-average.
Singh, however, pointed out that Chhetri’s hunger for the game caught his eye.
“He was young, and I had to handle him delicately. He was a bit naive but all bubbling with enthusiasm, a dream in his eyes, and that unmistakable stubbornness in himself - eager to grab the opportunity,” he recalled.
“I still remember his hunger. He was hungry to learn. He was hungry to play and succeed,” he added.