Sunil Chhetri has completed 15 years with the Indian football team. At 35, one could say he’s in the twilight of his career but watching him play it doesn’t seem so. No longer the sprightly, young striker that dazzled Indian football when he arrived on the scene, one could say a more mature Chhetri is still at his peak.

Easily the most important player for club and country, Chhetri’s goal-scoring record is one to inspire awe.

A six-time AIFF Player of the Year, Chhetri has scored 72 goals for the Indian football team becoming its all-time leading goalscorer. He is also the all-time top Indian scorer in the ISL by some distance. In terms of pure numbers, Chhetri has left even some of the greatest names in Indian football far behind.

Small frame, big doubts

But for the coaches that scouted and groomed him, such a stellar career didn’t always seem to be on the cards.

“When you are assessing young footballers – perhaps once in a lifetime, a player would come along to lift your heart. I probably did not feel that way when I first saw him,” former Mohun Bagan coach Subrata Bhattacharya who was in charge of the Kolkata side when they offered a 17-year-old Chhetri a three-year contract, wrote in an article on the All India Football Federation website.

Sukhwinder Singh, Chhetri’s first international coach, who also managed him at his second club JCT Mills, felt his small frame would prevent him from making it big at the international level as a striker. Although seen as a promising young player with good skill sets, not many saw him as a future star in Indian football.

His initial years were all about playing second fiddle to established strikers. When he joined Mohun Bagan in 2002, Bhaichung Bhutia joined with him to add to a team that had top strikers like Jose Barreto. Indeed, Chhetri recalled the tough early days in the city when he used to be in tears, and had to call his father and say: “I don’t think I should do this.”

But he kept at it. Lacking the physical attributes to play up front on his own, Chhetri made up for it by adding other qualities to his game.

“His diminutive figure did not evoke any thoughts that he would be able to get on the goal. But he showed an excellent reading of the game. He constantly made runs off the ball, barking at his teammates to pass the ball to him,” Bhattacharya said

“He was perhaps never really a great dribbler. To overcome his dribbling deficiencies, he worked extensively on his dodges, which has added the extra dimension to his game. It is this attitude towards the game that has helped him achieve success,” he added.

A complete centre-forward

After moving to JCT Mills in 2005, the year when he also made his international debut, Chhetri began to grow in confidence. After a quiet first season, he scored 11 goals for JCT in 2006-’07. His continuous efforts to improve were bearing fruits.

He continued the form in the national shirt, playing as a floating striker behind Bhutia under Bob Houghton. He scored six goals in five matches for India in 2007, that included a brace against Cambodia in the Nehru Cup and a goal each against Syria and Kyrgyzstan. The man often touted as the ‘next Bhaichung Bhutia’ was starting to carve out his own identity.

His first international hat-trick against Tajikistan in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup showed how Chhetri was blossoming into a proper center-forward. His finishing instincts, hold-up play, and dribbling skills were all evident in the three goals that he scored in that game.

Overseas struggles

Two more fruitful seasons with East Bengal and Dempo when he netted a combined tally of 20 goals followed, and he began attracting interest from foreign clubs. Many moves fell through before he made a switch to Kansas City Wizards in MLS (United States). Two years later he moved to Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon.

Neither move was successful for Chhetri who returned to India on loan at Churchill Brothers. Despite scoring 13 goals in six matches, he was struggling.

“Initially, when I started playing the matches here, I didn’t know what was happening. Even though I was fitter than what I was before, I didn’t know what to do in the game. That is what the spell in Lisbon had done to me,” Chhetri said recalling a tricky stint with Churchill.

Bengaluru FC and changing roles

After requesting to be released from the Portuguese club, Chhetri joined Bengaluru FC, a brand-new team entering the I-League. For Chhetri, who was nearing his thirties and with his career at crossroads after giving up a chance to play in Europe, it was a risky move. As it turned out though, it proved to be a big turning point in his career.

Chhetri’s trajectory didn’t soar straightaway. Without a lot of professional action in the last few seasons, his fitness levels (although improved after stints abroad) were deemed not good enough by manager Ashley Westwood who wanted to use him on the flanks, a position he hadn’t played before.

“He’d been a footballer who had never been told of his responsibilities, about how hard you have to work and how hard you to defend and you have to be a team player. He had 12-14% body fat. He was quite pudgy,” Westwood told Injury Time podcast recently.

After being dropped for the first game of the season against Mohun Bagan, Chhetri revealed he felt quite shocked, but like every time when a finger was pointed at him, Chhetri reacted positively. Having made adjustments to the technical part of the game in the past, it was time for a physical transformation.

He turned vegan, a change that he revealed helped him greatly while recovering from games as he crossed his thirties. After spending time with coach Westwood to understand his role better, the improvement was evident. Playing in the left-wing position, Chhetri scored 15 goals in all competitions for Bengaluru as they won the I-League in their debut season. It was his most prolific season in Indian football till then.

“When he scored his first goal, he never looked back. His application, his attitude, and everything he did off the field was great,” Westwood said.

Stephen Constantine took over the reins of the Indian football team in 2014. He wanted to build a hardworking team, defensively strong and with an attack built around Chhetri.

The Englishman used him in a variety of positions during his time depending on the other players available to him. Chhetri though proved to be equally effective in all roles. After settling into the No 10 role just behind the striker, Chhetri went from strength to strength. He scored over 30 percent of India’s goals in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers as The Blue Tigers returned to the competition after eight years. Since 2017, he has scored 20 goals for India in 23 matches.

He replicated the form at the club level too. Mostly deployed in a similar No 10 role at Bengaluru FC under Albert Roca and later under Carles Cuadrat, Chhetri enjoyed his best-ever season. In 2017-’18 as Bengaluru FC won the ISL, Chhetri scored 24 goals in all competitions.

An indispensable team player

His constant desire to learn about the game, willingness to continuously improve himself and sacrifices for a fitter body, meant he overcame every hurdle that threatened to derail his career to become an icon for Indian football.

But unlike other iconic players who would have a position reserved for them on the pitch, Chhetri has never had a position on the pitch that was exclusively his own. On the contrary, it was he who always adapted to the team’s needs according to the options it has or the lack thereof.

What has not changed is the consistency of his output and the hard work he puts in, to get better.

As Indian football rejoices 15 years of Chhetri with the national team, his clarification that he intends to stay on for a few more years would come as a huge relief. Indian football is not prepared for the departure of man who has aced every challenge thrown at him and aged like fine wine.