Sunil Chhetri: The humble centurion

12 months ago Rohan Alvares | TNN 0

A modest turnout of around 2500 fans for India’s opening game against Chinese Taipei in the ongoing Intercontinental Cup prompted skipper Sunil Chhetri to post a heartfelt video on Twitter. It carried a simple message to the public — “Please come and support us” — a line the veteran forward repeats several times in the two minute, twenty second clip uploaded on Saturday evening.

If the response to Chhetri’s impassioned plea is anything to go by, then India’s talisman will rightly be hopeful of celebrating his 100th cap for the country against Kenya on Monday in front of a larger gathering at the 10,000-seater Mumbai Football Arena.

“I’m sorry man,” was the 33-year-old’s first response to a question on the video at a press conference held on the eve of his landmark international game.

Such has been its impact that, as of late Sunday, the post had already garnered over 82,000 likes and retweeted by over 40,000 individuals, including Chhetri’s cricket counterpart Virat Kohli and tennis star Sania Mirza. The volume of reactions eventually took a toll on Chhetri’s phone.

“It wasn’t for the special occasion firstly. My phone hung. I never knew it was going to have that kind of impact. It was unbelievable man.

“I was talking to Sandesh Jhingan and telling him how when you go to play an ISL game at a few clubs like Kerala, Chennaiyin and BFC, this (the atmosphere) is what you want to feel. Top most is Kerala Blasters, that’s how a player should feel. Somewhere I thought, this is something we couldn’t feel here,” Chhetri said, unable to hide the regret in his tone. “I just hope everyone takes it in the right way. There was no hidden agenda, it was straight from my heart. Virat and all joined in, it was such a sweet gesture. So thank you for helping me spread the word.”

Set to become only the second Indian footballer after Bhaichung Bhutia (104 caps) to play 100 matches for the national team, Chhetri was clearly emotional as he reflected on his international career which began against Pakistan nearly an exact 13 years ago in the den of India’s traditional rivals. “Me and Syed Rahim Nabi were roommates. In the morning when Sukhi sir (Sukhwinder Singh, the then head coach) announced the team at breakfast, me and Nabi were both on the team. I still remember, we couldn’t even take a nap in the afternoon because we were buzzing. We were two 20-year-old kids who had got the news that we were going to start for the senior India team for the first time. It was an unbelievable feeling.

“The game finished 1-1. We scored first, I was lucky enough to get the first goal. I was so happy that I forgot we were playing in Pakistan, so I went to the Pakistani fans and started celebrating. There’s a very sad photo where I am doing this (gestures how he celebrated with both hands up) in front of the fans and nobody followed me. We conceded after the 80th minute but that by far is one of the best moments of my life,” beamed Chhetri, admitting he never imagined he would go on to win 100 India caps. “Did I think I was going to play 100 games then? No. I cannot tell you in words how happy and honoured I am.

“Honestly, I never think much about milestones. But in the build up to this game, been hearing so much, getting so many messages…I was talking to my mom yesterday and she was quite emotional. How big it was for her made me realise how big it actually is.”

While it remains to be seen how many spectators do eventually show up – with the match taking place on a weekday – two figures certain to be present are Bhutia and All India Football Federation president Praful Patel. The duo will hand Chhetri a plaque in honour of his milestone ahead of kick-off.

Asked if his parents or wife Sonam were due to attend the fixture, Chhetri, who is India’s all-time highest goalscorer with 59 strikes, quipped: “My parents aren’t coming tomorrow. They said 100 games is too small a feat, when it becomes 200 they will come. That’s what Mum said. Sonam might come.”

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