19th October, 2016 will be remembered as a momentous night for Indian football as Bengaluru FC thrashed defending champions Johor Darul Ta'zim 3-1 (aggregate 4-2) in the semi-finals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup 2016.
BFC and former Indian national team captain Sunil Chhetri stepped up and delivered when it mattered, scoring in each half and thereby etching his and his club’s name in the annals of Indian football for good.
The visitors took the lead in the 11th minute but Chhetri levelled proceedings before the close of the first half. He scored a screamer in the 66th minute to give the Blues an upper hand, before Juan Antonio headed in a third goal for the home side with less than fifteen minutes of play left.
Led from the front by a stupendous performance from Chhetri and buoyed by a vociferous home crowd, BFC outplayed the Malaysians to become the first Indian side to qualify for the finals in the tournament’s history.
In this article, we take a look at this special win focusing on Sunil Chhetri’s impact on the team and the quality he brings in as captain of the side.
An icon and benchmark for the team
Sunil Chhetri is country's most-capped player and the all-time leading goalscorer with 51 goals to his name; there is hardly a better benchmark than him on the national and international arena for the upcoming young talent in Indian football.
For BFC and its players, it is a matter of pride and honour that someone as decorated and successful as Chhetri wears the team's colours.
His attitude, professionalism and the ability to take each game as it comes is the gold standard when it comes to every Indian player - be it at BFC or otherwise. He is confidence personified but at the same time, affords the opponent respect - this also helps him stay grounded and keep focused on the short term.
This is what he had to say in the immediate aftermath of the game:
“When this tournament started, we had this mantra of taking one match at a time, and it remains. We beat the defending champions, and it’s not easy, now we’ve done that. Now, it’s time for the finals, we’ll prepare our best and try our best for the finals also.”
When asked after the achievement if this was the best performance of his career, Sunil replied:
“At BFC, this family, the players are quite spoiled for keeping out foot forward and to keep succeeding. To be very honest, and I don’t want to sound over bossy or over confident, but I expected my team to like this. Starting from our coach to our assistant coach, our goalkeeping coach to Kunal (the Media Manager) to Akash (the Asst. Media Manager), everyone does a lot of hard work on our gameday, on our preparation. So I wasn’t shocked with the way we played, but what happens sometimes is even when you play well you don’t succeed.”
The fact that he remembered to thank (and even name some of the officials!) just minutes after such a close and historic contest shows us the kind of character he is in the dressing room - a leader but a very empathetic one at that!
After his exploits with the Indian team which led to the AFC Asian Cup qualification for the first time in 27 years, Chhetri continued in the same vein when he signed on for Bengaluru. He topped the goal-scoring charts in the 2015-16 I-league for BFC, leading them to a second title in just over 3 years of existence.
A calming influence
BFC had a crucial away goal in the first leg of the semi-final, courtesy Lyngdoh. At their home ground in the second leg, the Blues did not have the dream start they may have hoped for though; the Malaysians took the lead just eleven minutes into the game.
The significance of the night and huge expectations could have weighed down the Blues thereafter, but Chhetri did not let that happen.
The occasion called for experience and calm nerves against strong opposition - the captain epitomised these requisite qualities. He linked up well with teammates, passing and probing in search of an equalizer and rattling the crossbar in the process.
Chhetri’s link-up play with midfielder Eugenson Lyngdoh gave the necessary thrust to the team’s attack and his persistence bore fruit with a goal before the half-time whistle.
Shouldering responsibility and leading from the front
It is when the chips are down and all odds are stacked against them that those truly strong show their worth and Sunil Chhetri is no different. On a massively important night for BFC and the whole of Indian football, an early goal proved why Johor are defending champions but the captain had no intentions of going down easily.
His continued perseverance in attack and constant link-up play with Lyngdoh - another key cog in the BFC wheel – saw the home side make a series of impressive moves before the inevitable equalizer coming in the 41st minute. The Sree Kanteerava stadium erupted with chants, singing aloud in praise of Chhetri and his mates.
A few minutes after the hour mark, a well-taken ball was slid to Chhetri, who took his time to position himself before coolly slotting in a screamer at the near post from 30 yards out. A world-class goal had been scored on Indian shores and who better than the captain to do the honours!
He continued to play according to the team’s strategy and set the tempo for them to perform and deliver on the big stage. When he was substituted with about 10 minutes to go before close of play, the ovation from the stands underlined his importance and contribution on the night.
After the win, he sent a message of reassurance to those worried about a possible injury (which may have caused the substitution):
“It was just cramps. As I am a marker in the set pieces, I communicated to the gaffer on the touchline. When you have cramps, you can jog or even run, but you can’t jump. So it was more sensible for me to come off, and allow someone fit and ready to do the marking on the set pieces.”
It wasn’t the first time he had stood up to take on a challenge head-on. In the round of 16, Bengaluru were drawn to face Kitchee SC at their home ground, viz., Mong Kok stadium in Hong Kong. Seven minutes in, Kitchee had taken a lead but Chhetri scored a brace to put BFC ahead.
He shot home from the penalty spot before scoring another to give the Blues a slender lead. Kitchee equalised a few minutes later but the tie was sealed with Lalhimpuia’s goal in the second half. On a demanding night, the captain had seen his team through to the quarterfinals.
The grand finale
The Blues will face Iraqi side Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in the showdown finale on 5th November, 2016. The Baghdad-based rivals are one of Iraq’s most successful teams in the domestic arena but this is the first time they have earned a place in the AFC finals, just like the Blues.
On the night when history is scripted again, whether home or away, the Bengaluru players will require fresh inspiration and direction; they will know where to find it - in their captain, who will take to the pitch leading, as always, from the front with aplomb.