Will there be life for Indian football after Chhetri?
“There’s no comparison between me and Lionel Messi,” said Sunil Chhetri for the umpteenth time, after scoring both sensational goals that defeated Bangladesh in the joint qualifying match (for the 2022 World Cup and the 2023 Asian Cup) in Doha, Qatar.
At the height of his powers, India’s stunningly effective “Captain Fantastic” is preternaturally modest about his own achievements. But numbers don’t lie.
The fact is Chhetri has 74 goals in the national colours, which is two ahead of Messi’s tally for Argentina. In between, the fast-rising UAE striker Ali Mabkhout has 73, but the only active player who has scored more for his country than Chhetri is the all-time great of global football: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal.
At his virtual press conference after beating Bangladesh, the 36-year-old star insisted: “Forget [the comparisons between] me and Messi, but between me and that whole category [of top-flight stars]. There are thousands of players who are better than me, and [all of us] are fans of Messi. That’s the reality. People who understand football know there’s no comparison.”
But look at the goals that he racked up late in the game by penetrating Bangladesh’s defense to decisively turn a hard-fought scoreless battle, and it’s obvious Chhetri plays with extraordinary poise, and possesses a rare degree of class, along with uncommon guts and gamesmanship.
In the 79th minute of the increasingly tense match, the veteran combined with his 23-year-old teammate Ashique Kuruniyan (they also play together at Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League) performed an ostensibly drifting -- but actually perfectly placed -- cross lofted past the Bangladesh defenders, and headed it in at an impossibly acute angle.
Then, all killer instinct in the 90th minute, the captain took an excellent pass in the box from yet another Bengaluru FC team-mate, Suresh Singh Wanjam. With four defenders converging fast, he smoothly curled the ball into the back of the net.
Game over. Once again, Chhetri delivered victory for India.
It’s not the first time, nor likely to be anything like the last. Right on debut in India blue -- against Pakistan in Quetta in 2005 -- Chhetri scored. Two years later in 2007, at his first international tournament -- the Nehru Cup in New Delhi -- he scored two against Cambodia, and one more each against Syria and Kyrgyzstan, to ensure that India won the championship for the first time.
When he got a chance to play against the vaunted South Koreans, Chhetri scored, and much later when he took the field against the North Koreans, he scored again. The one time he faced Vietnam (a much higher ranked team), he hat-tricked all of India’s goals to deliver victory.
It is an amazing record of achievement, which becomes almost unbelievable when you consider the context in which Chhetri plays.
India used to be an excellent footballing Asian power -- in the 1950s and 60s it regularly beat contemporary standouts like Japan and Iran -- but neglect and extreme mismanagement have brought the status of the game very low. For decades on end, the national team hasn’t even managed to crack the top 100 in the world.
Part of the problem is sheer incompetence. In his excellent 2019 best-seller, The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-First Century, David Goldblatt says it exactly as we all know it is, “in South Asia, home to almost a third of humanity, football remains in the shadow of cricket, and has, despite great potential, been kept there by the world’s most venal and ineffective administrators.”
Another crucial issue is the absurdly over-hyped black hole of attention that is cricket in the sub-continent. Every eyeball and rupee in India at least seems to pivot to this so-called “gentleman’s game” that is seriously played by barely half a dozen countries. Every other sport languishes and suffers.
To his credit, Chhetri doesn’t care. He often says the difference between how cricketers are hyped, and how he is received, doesn’t bother him in the least, because “I know I play the best game in the world.”
At his press conference earlier this week, he said: “It’s a brilliant life that I live. If I give you the national team jersey tomorrow, and ask you to do your best for the country, you are going to do that. It is what keeps me going. I completely cherish it, and give it everything I have.”
Will there be life for Indian football after Chhetri? The great champion says, with his characteristic understated optimism: “I say there will be better players, and that is how evolution works. You have to believe that. If you keep getting players like me, then we will be where we are. But where I want to see my country is way above, so there will be better players than me. It takes time.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.