The Indian football team’s encounter against South Vietnam on September 1, 1962, would always be etched in memory. That the national team reached the Asian Games final after a hard-fought victory is not the only reason why the match has become part of football folklore.
On that fateful night, central defender Jarnail Singh, playing in his unusual position of centre-forward, displayed what one could achieve through courage and dedication.
Four days prior to this match, Jarnail had to be carried out with a bloodied face against Thailand. Six stitches on his forehead and innumerable pain killers could make him barely stand on his feet. Yet, Jarnail not only hit the pitch, but also scored a stunning 30th-minute goal in India’s 3-2 triumph.
But then, Jarnail is not the only national team footballer to indulge in such an act of bravery. Fans often fail to mention Sunil Chhetri’s splendid strike against Myanmar in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup semi-final in Hyderabad that played a huge role in shaping the future of Indian football.
On August 7, the city of Nizams was hit by heavy rain immediately after the match started. It continued throughout the tie and the ground turned into a kind of paddy field within minutes.
Chhetri, then the junior striking partner of skipper Bhaichung Bhutia, had suffered a deep cut on his forehead in the previous tie against Turkmenistan. Against Myanmar, he took the field with three stitches that almost covered his right eye, and yet struck the all-important goal, that too with a header.
With eight minutes left, midfielder Renedy Singh sent a long ball for Bhaichung inside the box. Challenged by two defenders, Bhutia displayed his class as he sold a dummy to his opponents on the right and then lifted the ball to the vacant area on the left.
Chhetri, who was rushing in, scored in a breathtaking fashion. He leaped high to meet the ball and it went into the net in a flash. India reached the AFC Challenge Cup final by the virtue of this goal.
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Later, this correspondent asked India coach Bob Houghton what he thought of Chhetri’s act since poor ground conditions could have further aggravated his injury. A man of few words, the British coach shook his head and said: “The boy was incredibly courageous.”
Much later, Chhetri told this correspondent: “Coach told me and Bhai (Bhutia) to stay upfront no matter how much pressure Myanmar put on us. I just stuck to his words and made best use of the opportunity. That’s all.”
It wasn’t a one-off for Chhetri. Over the years India have produced several top strikers. Many of them went on to attain iconic status. But none, including legends like Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Tulsidas Balaram and so on, could match Chhetri’s ability to score in crucial ties. Having begun his international career in Pakistan’s Quetta city on June 12, 2005, Chhetri has won crucial matches for India more often than anyone else.
No point attempting a comparative study of skills – it is too subjective and could be debated forever. But cold statistics favour Chhetri. Firmly and decisively. The day after the Myanmar tie, the Indian team flew to Delhi to play the final against Tajikistan. The temptation was too much to ignore – a win would fetch the ticket to Asian Cup final rounds after 27 years.
Here, too, Chhetri clinched the deal. He scored three brilliant goals in India’s 4-1 victory, the first of his three international hat-tricks to take India to the 2011 Asian Cup. The next time India played the Asian Cup was eight years later. Again, it would not have been possible without Chhetri’s remarkable match-winners which fetched six points against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan in the qualifiers.
The goal against Kyrgyzstan was an absolute stunner. He dribbled past three defenders, passed the ball for Jeje Lalpekhlua and struck home deftly when he received the ball back.
Former India striker and coach Subash Bhowmick said: “I find his focus and dedication amazing. His entire approach to the game is so serious that it has made him the most unfailing striker in India’s history.”
To say Chhetri took India to 2019 Asian Cup final rounds almost singlehandedly won’t be an exaggeration. Out of the six games in the qualifiers, he played five and struck four times. The goal in the 1-0 win against Myanmar in Yangon was historic as it was India’s first victory against the neighbours in an away tie since 1953.
“It was late in the match. When Udanta (Singh) put the ball at the goalmouth, I was still far behind. Believe me, I simply burst my lungs out and ran. The Myanmar defenders were ahead of me, but I told myself, I have to get it….I have to score,” Sunil told this correspondent later.
In Indian football, the list of strikers, who scored crucial goals for the national team, is not too short. Who can forget Sahu Mewalal’s dipping volley against Iran in the 1951 Asian Games final that made Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru come down to the dressing room to congratulate the boys? Or the goals from PK Banerjee and Jarnail Singh in India’s 2-1 win over South Korea in 1962 Asian Games final? Not every important goal necessarily came in the title rounds. Neville D’Souza’s amazing hat-trick against hosts Australia in 1956 Melbourne is undoubtedly India’s biggest Olympic success till date.
Many years later, India’s 1-0 upset win over Henri Michel’s UAE in 2001 World Cup qualifiers in Bangalore would not have been possible without midfielder Jules Alberto’s opportunistic strike. In 1970 Bangkok Asian Games, India trailed 0-2 against hosts Thailand before Bhowmick struck twice in succession to bring India back to the game. The team led by Syed Nayeemuddin went on to win the bronze medal.
Without Chuni Goswami’s double strike against South Vietnam, India would not have made the final in the 1962 Asian Games. In 1995, young Bhutia’s flying header that crashed against the net, made Asian Games champions Uzbekistan bite the dust. It was one of Bhutia’s finest goals in international football. Lots of Indian strikers had their share of glory in international football over the years.
The list could be longer.
But Chhetri stands ahead of all of them in sheer consistency. The argument that India play weaker opponents now doesn’t hold much water. India have mostly played against Asian opponents since 1948. In fact, challenges posed by teams within the continent are definitely tougher these days.
Well, to break away from the usual (and somewhat hackneyed) “past versus present” debate, one could say Chhetri hardly gave a hint of going this far in his career when he made his debut in Quetta, Balochistan in 2005 and scored immediately in India’s 1-1 draw against Pakistan. As the lone Indian scribe present at the stadium, the only feeling this correspondent had was the well-mannered boy could gel well with the seniors and the pressure didn’t bother him at all.
The marked change in Chhetri came much later. His stints in club football in the US (2010) and Portugal (2012) transformed him from a talented striker to an extraordinary footballer with definite signs of becoming one of India’s finest ever. After 15 glorious years with the national team, his place in Indian football’s hall of fame has certainly been reserved.