Chhetri said, 'One difference that I want to see in our country is that every kid in our country who wants to play and who is good should be identified as early as possible and given the right infrastructure, education and facility.'
"Hello, I am Sunil Chhetri," said a man who truly needs no introduction, as he entered the room at The Oberoi hotel in Bengaluru. The manner of the greeting showed you how modest the man was.
Last month, the ace footballer led India to a title win at the Intercontinental Cup, a tournament in which he also completed 100 appearances for the national side. He has netted 64 times for the country in 101 matches — an achievement comparable to those of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He is also one of the main reasons for India's ascent to 97th in the FIFA rankings — a major leap from 171st only four years ago.
However, life was never a bed of roses for Chhetri. My Nation caught up with the Indian captain for a candid chat on his life and career, and also the state of football in India. The talk invariably moved to his emotional video message to the fans before his 100th international match against Kenya on 4 June.
Only about 2,500 spectators turned up to watch India trounce Chinese Taipei and Chhetri score a hat-trick at the Mumbai Football Arena. It led Chhetri to issue an impassioned plea on social media exhorting the fans to "get involved". Chhetri's message was supported by Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar and India's next game against Kenya saw a near-full house at the same venue. An Youtuber called Nikunj aka Be YouNick even bought tickets of a whole stand so that fans could come and watch the match free of cost.
Does Chhetri ever fear that this groundswell of support may fizzle out? After all, sports fandom everywhere is driven by emotion and it would be difficult to keep them interested without a sustained show of brilliance.
"I’m optimistic, my friend. I’m really positive, I just hope people do come and watch. And I’m not just saying it for football but for any sports. If you guys have time and if you can, come and watch, especially when India are playing. Whenever some athlete in our country is wearing the blue jersey, and if you can, go and support the athlete. You have no idea how important it is. You might think what is my voice or what is my encouragement going to do to the player. But you have no idea how important you are as a fan," said Chhetri.
He emphasised that development of Indian sports is a shared responsibility.
"You cannot point fingers on someone. We’re all into this together. Let's suppose you are sitting at your home and watching television and you say, 'Why does India not get enough medals at the Olympics? We are 1.2 billion people.' You need to ask yourself how much can you contribute," Chhetri stated.
"I have known many family members who would say, ‘Kya yaar ye nahi hua, woh nahi hua’ (there is nothing worthwhile that has happened) and they have to ask what are they doing. The least you can do is go as a fan and encourage. Every one of us — the federation, government, media, fans, players, coaches, corporate houses — everyone has to come together and think how can we improve stuff, and collectively if we burn the fire from all the sides, the pan will be hot and things are going to happen," added the Indian football captain.
He felt that athletes should get the support they need "not only when you become a Sania (Mirza) or Saina (Nehwal) or Leander (Paes) or Bhaichung (Bhutia) or Virat (Kohli)", but when "they were trying to be someone". This is an area where there is scope for improvement, according to Chhetri.
He shared an anecdote from his childhood, when he was in class ten or eleven and didn't have boots for an important trial. "The irony is I can buy everything I want, but almost everything is sponsored. But when I was 16-17 and I needed stuff badly and couldn't afford it, there was no help," revealed Chhetri.
Having had a humble beginning, reaching the pinnacle of success speaks volumes of Chhetri's fortitude, calibre and struggle, and playing a century of games for the country is indeed a massive feat.
"To play 100 games is an absolute honour. When I started I never thought I was going to play for my country, leave aside 100 games. Now that I have played 100 games for my country, it gives me immense pleasure," said Chhetri.
Possibly a large part of the credit for Chhetri's success could be attributed to the passion for football that was instilled in him from a very young age. "Right from when I can think, we used to love football, enjoy playing — me, my mum, my dad. So getting the game into my system wasn’t a difficulty because of my parents," Chhetri said.
He also had a prescription for the betterment of Indian football. "One difference that I want to see in our country is that every kid in our country who wants to play and who is good should be identified as early as possible and given the right infrastructure, education and facility. And as far as coaching is concerned, education about diet, sleep and taking care of your body must be given. But right now it’s not the fact. We don't tap every talent in our country," said the Indian captain.
He, however, refused to be swayed too much by India's jump in ranking. "I do not take these rankings too seriously because of the tricky way they work. I am more bothered about trying to win games for my country. We have done quite well in the past couple of years. We have won more than we have lost. And I think that is very, very important," Chhetri opined.
That, in every way, is a response befitting a true champion. It is this attitude that makes Chhetri one of the finest players of his generation.
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Last Updated 6, Jul 2018, 1:15 PM