Captain Fantastic and the Blue Tigers - Sunil Chhetri and the Indian football team keep delivering
“Don’t fall, that’s all I thought really,” blurted out a jubilant Sunil Chhetri after having scored his 54th goal in Indian national team colours. The result? An unprecedented eighth win on the trot for India and a step towards realising the nation’s dream of qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
“That’s all I thought really. The first tackle that was put on me (en route to his match-winning goal), I could have gone down, taken a tumble but I said to myself, ‘don’t fall’. I got through the second tackle and said the same thing, ‘don’t fall’. Gave the ball to Jeje and kept running and the form that he has been in found me with a great ball. The ball went into the net and that’ all that matters. nothing else.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Off the field, down the athletic track, through the locker room, Sunil Chhetri appeared for the post-match press conference knackered – and rightly so after the performance, he had put in.
“Every day,” he said, “this what we live for”.
A bulge of the net, a roaring stand and a captain – overwhelmed by the victory that he had scripted, he still managed to remain calm, with his hands folded in the middle of it all.
“I want to win this man, I want to this so bad,” I can recall Chhetri saying a few days back at the Trident Hotel, as charged up as I have ever seen him. The AIFF had awarded him the “Hero of the I-League” – fitting reward to the true talisman of Indian football. “You can say I am desperate for it. It’s a huge game for us as a country. We need to win this,” he had said.
His eyes were fixed. He is a man who never really played for trophies and that night was proof. The press conference had finished with calls of Sunil to come back to the podium. Not for another bite though; he had forgotten his trophy.
“He has been fantastic. He has held back and has concentrated on his rehabilitation. I am happy I didn’t play him against Nepal (India’s last game on the 6th of June),” quipped a delighted Stephen Constantine with a smile as big as the divide in our country between the so-called “nationalists” and “liberals”. “He still had some scar tissues. If I had played him – he probably doesn’t make that run today.”
It has been a long time coming. A couple of years back and nearly to the day on the 16th of June, 2015, India had witnessed one of their most humiliating days – a loss to Guam had seen the Blue Tigers sink to the abyss – 173rd in the FIFA rankings.
“Rankings are not something we see when we see when we prepare for a side. But it’s something that we (the players) really do keep an eye on. It’s something to be happy about (reaching the top 100) but it’s nothing more than that at the moment. It’s a reminder how we are doing and the day we were down there at 173 I let them (the squad) clearly that we are much better than this.”
And now finally, after these two long years, he along with all the football fanatics in this nation can finally see the light. The crusade is not over but we are nearly there, at doorsteps of the promised land.
As the final whistle blew, there were no words from the leader of men. Instead, there were hugs – muted ones as everyone wearing that awkward shade of blue on the pitch gravitated towards the man they always look up to.
There are crowns yet to wear for this team but they are surely set to earmark a red letter day in Indian football history as they well and truly move into the top 100.
History is set to be made and records re-written. But no one in the Indian footballing fraternity could have ever envisaged such a performance. This Indian team didn’t only deliver eight wins on the trot but also stood up and answered its detractors. They are not a juggernaut that vanquishes their opponents – they are not there yet and it would be foolhardy to expect them to be there at this point in time.
But they are everything that an ardent Indian fan wants. A side who doesn’t know when to stop; when to give up. And now they are one who has learnt to punch above its weight and as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu said right after the game, "the world of football needs to know that the Indian team are no pushovers. They need to learn to give more respect."
A third world country filled with untapped potential slowly emerging as a giant in the world economy, now that is a statement from our goalkeeper that every Indian can identify themselves with.
The battle cries were never loud. They were always ones that paid the utmost respect to their opponents. Others might feel them as tepid but they were, well, typically Indian. But the zeal inside has been strong, their belief – paramount.
“We are the favourites and we expect nothing but all three points,” the Kyrgyz side had quipped the day before the game. And all that Chhetri had to say about was "Best of luck to them".
But there was a fire in his eyes and in his heart. It was there since the first day of the conditioning camp. For a week before the game against Nepal, Chhetri didn’t touch the ball. A day before the Nepal game, he worked fervently with the support staff with the single aim of getting back into shape on the sidelines. His eyes, however, time and again belied where he truly wanted to be – on the pitch where his teammates were.
“I was hungry, man. It was like putting me on a leash. I want to be out there playing football. Whether it be on the streets or on any playground. Five on five or eleven on eleven, I want to be involved. And this is the national team you are talking about,” he was charged up and equally impressed by his team’s play without him.
But somewhere that fire looked to be lacking in the first 45 minutes in the game against the Kyrgyz as the visitors stifled Blue Tigers on their own home turf. “What the f--- are we doing?” was what Constantine began his halftime speech with and the rest is a blurted contortion of expletives. And rightly so.
The second half performance was a fitting reply.
“I have played 12 years for my country and this by far was one of the best performances,” Chhetri stated after the game. “And it’s not only because of the result. We were badly battered at half time. We were not up to the mark. We allowed them possession. We showed character. We came back and won it.”.
The Indian football team neither can be termed as the drama kings nor are they sure-fire fodder for documentaries anytime soon. But they are surely etching a fairytale of their own.
The last two years have been a whirlwind. A blunt start with five losses on the trot to Constantine’s second stint as Indian coach had everyone up in arms, calling for his head. But flashing back now over the theatre in the past 24 months and we have seen 28 players make their Indian debuts under Constantine. He, as well as the team, were like a beetle on its back, kicking its legs in the search for survival.
And then something happened to tip it back to their side. Maybe it was the planning from hierarchy to finally featuring in regular games internationally or something on the field. It could be the win against Puerto Rico, the grit to come back and win against Cambodia or that run by Udanta against Myanmar. But at the heart of all of this was one man; Sunil Chhetri. In every game and at every moment, he has turned up and delivered.
But he is never one to take all the glory. “If Gurpreet (Sandhu) doesn’t make those saves; if Anas doesn’t make the goalline block or Jeje doesn’t make that pass then it would have been a different story. I am just lucky that I play in a position where I can get to the end of it.”
Even after all this success, we doubt both Chhetri as well as the Indian team. And I can’t totally blame anyone for all the pain that the Indian football fan has suffered over the years, eight wins on the trot is not going to be enough. It will take more than that. But at least we are on the right path.
But with Chhetri, I think we forget sometimes. We forget what he has done and how long he has done it. But to all doubters that ever existed, he has firmly established that the Sunil Chhetri epoch is now.
Eyes upwards, hand clutched in a prayer and lips murmuring as he said his thanks to the All Mighty whilst Stephen Constantine held the mic - this win was as special as it gets.