Bengaluru skipper Sunil Chhetri reigns supreme on Indian football's biggest night
Chhetri's brace saw Bengaluru FC become the first Indian club to reach the AFC Cup final
As the two teams walked out to an electric crowd at the Kanteerava Stadium, the first thing they may have noticed was a massive banner hanging over their heads when they stepped out of the dressing room and entered the floodlit arena.
'SC11 The one we look up to'
There is no question that Sunil Chhetri saw it too as he led the team out on a historic night. In what was the biggest game ever for an Indian football club, Chhetri was focused on the task at hand. Following the pre-match pleasantries, he even saluted the crowd that chanted his name in unison.
The orange captain's armband was prominent on his blue sleeve. No other Indian footballer deserved it more than Chhetri. At this stage of the competition, no one had succeeded in leading a team where no other Indian club had gone before.
Until Wednesday night.
Bengaluru's away goal and advantage in the tie had been quickly erased by the defending champions. Safiq Rahim, an experienced campaigner in Asian competition with his eighth goal of the season, had seen to that.
The home side could not be faulted for a lack of effort, though. Chhetri himself had seen a terrific chance come off the crossbar. He had screamed and admonished himself for missing his opportunity. A tough shot for most players, his bread and butter.
The fans cheered him on. They always do in Bengaluru over the 90 minutes - and then some. They knew a goal was coming. All the action was in Johor's half. And it was Chhetri who parted the clouds for that first ray of hope.
Eugeneson Lyngdoh's corner kick was perfect. An out swinger had found Chhetri with the pinpoint accuracy of a military grade GPS unit. Chhetri only had to hop on the spot and head it home to give Bengaluru the equaliser.
In traditional Chhetri fashion, there was no over the top celebration. While his teammates were delirious, Chhetri pointed at Lyngdoh as he ran towards him. "That was all you," he seemed to say. The man who scored the all-important away goal in the first leg had grabbed an assist here at home and Chhetri knew how important his delivery was - as it has been over two seasons at the club.
The most important goal of Chhetri’s career?
With the game evenly poised in the second half, Chhetri had received the ball outside the box and had some space with only one defender to beat. "Shoot," came the cry from the vociferous West Block.
Chhetri took another touch, allowing another defender to quickly recover and place himself between the Indian skipper and the goal. A few fans' hands went up to their heads as they let out a frustrated sigh. The man advantage was lost and the attack had died down.
Or so everyone thought. Everyone except Chhetri.
With the slightest of back lifts, he took everyone by surprise with a quick shot on goal. The ball looped and curled over the defence before sailing towards the top corner. Johor goalkeeper Izham Tarmizi scrambled to his right, put in a desperate dive and connected with nothing but air.
The ball sailed past his outstretched hand. The net bulged. Kanteerava exploded. 21,300 fans lost their collective minds as did thousands watching across the country. That ray of hope from the Promised Land was now a dazzling light.
Alvaro Rubio has seen it all in a career spanning 18 years. And he couldn't believe what he had just witnessed, his jaw on the floor as he embraced his skipper, younger by five years. CK Vineeth took a knee and lifted Chhetri's boot, mockingly giving it the spit-shine it deserved.
How many times has he delivered when it mattered? That free-kick against Nepal in the dying stages of the game... A sublime curler against Oman that left Reading goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi searching for answers while sprawled on the ground... The extra-time winner in the SAFF Championship final against the favourites Afghanistan...
Chhetri celebrated with his arms outstretched, fists clenched and a smile of accomplishment etched on his face - another Chhetri trademark. In another corner of the stadium, a second banner depicted that very same picture so synonymous with the forward.
Johor's heads dropped. While another goal would have given them the advantage on away goals, it was a devastating blow - one they never recovered from. Bengaluru were on the front foot and never looked back. By the time Spanish defender Juanan headed home the third, the tie was over.
Bengaluru had done what other Indian clubs such as Dempo and East Bengal had failed to do in the competition. It was the perfect gift for new coach Albert Roca a day before his birthday.
A date with destiny awaits as the Blues take on Iraqi side Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya on 5 November. Iraq vs India. The Falcons vs the Eagles.
India coach Stephen Constantine said last month that he teases Chhetri, saying: "Your time is almost done." The Indian skipper disagrees and claims he still has a few years left in him.
Judging by his performances so far, fans can expect nothing less from the all-time top scorer for both club and country. He will take it one game at a time.
"When this tournament started, we had this mantra of taking one match at a time and it remains," he said after the game. "We beat the defending champions, and it's not easy. Now we've done that."
As always, Chhetri credited his team, the coaching staff and the 12th man - the crowd that egged them on till the final whistle. The crowd that was missing when the quarter-final was played behind closed doors. The crowd that creates a magical atmosphere that the players love to feed off of.
"If not for them, we wouldn't have reacted the way we did [after going a goal down]. They were extraordinary!"
While many people talk about slowly 'waking up the sleeping giant' that is Indian football, what Bengaluru FC have done is plunge a syringe full of adrenalin straight into the sleeping giant's heart. And Chhetri's surgical precision has been central to their success over the past three-and-a-half seasons.
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