Donning Bagan’s famous green and maroon jersey is often considered to be a great pride and honour for footballers. But when I saw a pint-sized player miss those gilt-edged chances from close, precisely inside the 18-yard box, I shuddered.
If this is the quality of a player, then there must be something wrong with Bagan’s recruitment policy, I wondered.
At Bagan, Chhetri, then a 19-year-old, scored just eight goals in three seasons and the club finished in the bottom half of the league table on every ocassion.
Chhetri came to Bagan from Delhi, a city which has no great footballing history to boast other than beating perennial powerhouse Bengal in the inaugural Santosh Trophy before Independence. For a young footballer, the Capital isn’t the right place as Delhi clubs don’t even get invitation from top national tournaments because of their poor standard.
So, in 2003, a move to the country’s football Capital became imminent for Chhetri. Interestingly, it was exactly a decade after Baichung Bhutia strode into the limelight in East Bengal jersey.
The Delhi boy made his debut for Bagan in 2003.
Calcutta wasn’t an unknown city for Chhetri, who had his schooling at the Fort William where his father was employed with Indian Army’s Eastern Command across the Maidan, lifeline of city’s football.
If you’re an aspiring footballer, the sprawling Maidan with multiple clubs dotted on its landscape would definitely put you in a trance.
It’s difficult to escape.
Probably, Chhetri, too, may have felt the same thing during his formative years in the city.
When he returned to the city as a 19-year-old footballer, it wasn’t that easy for him to soak the pressure of playing infront of the vociferous Bagan fans.
In Chhetri’s case, the Delhi youngster probably also succumbed to the pressure. And, after a not-so-impressive stint at Bagan, Chhetri packed off his bag to Phagwara, which I feel was the turning point in his career.
Three years later when I met him at Ludhiana in January 2007, Chhetri looked different. There were no shaky starts as the diminutive player emerged as one of the best known strikers. From 2005 to 2007, Chhetri scored 20 goals including 12 goals in a single season when JCT finished second in the I-League and Chhetri earned the League’s “Player of the Year” award.
At JCT, he got an ideal platform where he learnt a lot under coach Sukhwinder Singh. The real grinding was done in this former Punjab club where he played with and against the sturdy and taller Punjabi footballers.
He soon turned into a motivated striker who was ready for the bigger challenges.
Besides, at Phagwara, his focus was mainly on trainings only as there were no other distractions because the industrial had little outlets for entertainment. But it was only in the weekends, when the club was not playing, Chhetri would often hit the Ambala highway to be in Delhi.
Playing alongside Bhutia in the national team was supposedly the second most important thing that happened in his career. When there were a lot of failed attempts to find a partner for Bhutia, Chhetri popped up. Before settling for Chhetri, former coach Bob Houghton had even tried Sushil Singh and Abhisek Yadav.
But none could match Chhetri’s consistency and focus.
For six long years, the duo started as the first choice strikers barring the Asian Cup last year when Bhutia was laid low by injury. Unfazed by his skipper’s absence, Chhetri became indispensable for the Indian team which however trooped out with three straight defeats. But Chhetri left his indelible impression in his first major international event. He scored two in India’s three goals in the tournament.
Like Bhutia, he too nurtured a dream to play abroad. He wanted to pursue higher things in life as a footballer because Chhetri knew it will be too late after a couple of years.
Last year, I conducted a quiz in a top school and football academy in Delhi. I asked the boys to write the names of Indian footballers.
Everybody wrote just two names – Bhutia and Chhetri.
But I wasn’t surprised.
Chhetri is destined to be the worthy successor of Bhutia.