We’ve got Chhetri, Sunil Chhetri... I just don’t think you understand
As I walked home yesterday, singing and screaming with my mates in an ersatz tribute to the best traditions of the land that invented the game we all love, I knew that I had to write about him… the player who scored the goal that won us the match, the man we spent an hour and a half shouting ourselves hoarse for.
Yesterday night had been all about him.
Him. Our captain. Our leader. Our legend.
As with most of my tributes, I tried to find an appropriate poem or quote to build the piece around – a central tenet upon which the entire shebang can be constructed. I spent all night digging through whatever little literary knowledge I have, sifting through the innumerable inspirational words that float around the interwebs. Walt Whitman’s immortal “O Captain! My Captain!” was the obvious choice - a soul-rending cry of belief, love, and devotion to a leader – that is, after all, everything he inspires in us – but it didn’t feel... how do you put it... correct.
20 odd hours after the search began, I’m giving up.
None of those words, grand as they are, fully capture the emotion and the pure release of adrenaline that filled the Bengaluru air yesterday. It was a mixture of euphoria, relief, and plain ol’ joy... a mixture that defied description.
Besides, it feels a bit like taking the easy way out, hiding behind the comfort of powerful words that have been penned down by masters of yore. There is, of course, a time and place for it, but this doesn’t feel like one of those moments.
You see, India didn't do anything the easy way yesterday.
As a team, we were anything but great – our short passing game bordered on the non-existent, the midfield was bypassed too often in favour of pumping long balls toward strikers who were at the very least half-a-foot shorter than their markers and our defence... oh, our defence. Too often, the Kyrgyz attack walked into the Indian penalty box with an ease that bordered on the absurd and were it not for some brilliant last-ditch tackles and lackadaisical finishing on the part of the visitors the mood at the end of the night might have been completely different.
The collective failing of the team at times, the outdated tactics on show (why Stephen Constantine insists on playing a flat 4-4-2 with players not suited to the system in any way is something only he’ll ever understand), the need to get a team identity going – Ah! there’s so much to address, so much to work to do, but all that serves merely to amplify the efforts of those who took to the field yesterday.
Pritam Kotal and Narayan Das put in handy shifts on the flanks whilst Jakichand Singh and Hollicharan Narzary did likewise ahead of them – running gamely all night long. Rowllin Borges and Eugeneson Lyngdoh flitted in and out of the game and so did Borges’ replacement Mohammed Rafique.
Jeje Lalpekhlua was outstanding, bearing the brunt of the aerial bullying by the Kyrgyz centre-backs without ever backing down; running and running till his legs gave out, relentless in his pursuit to stretch the game.
The sight of Sandesh Jhingan, bearded and long-haired, flying into tackles is the reason adrenal glands were created and Anas Edathodika had the kind of match that reinforces people’s beliefs that he is the best centre-back in the nation. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was simply immense, a giant of a man whose rise through the footballing ranks has been nothing short of spectacular.
And then, there was him.
Every time he touched the ball it felt like something would happen like he could wave away all our defects, all our failings, with one waft of his right foot... and when the clock struck 68:01, that’s exactly what he did.
When he took the ball to feet, he was around ten yards in front of his own box. He used his underrated upper-body strength to take the ball past a sliding Israilov Akhlidin... as he leapt over the prone midfielder it looked like his touch had been too heavy. The massive figure of Tamirlan Kozubaev came careening in and should, by all rights, have gotten the ball, but he was having none of that.
With a sublime touch, he moved the ball off its path and beyond Kozubaev before rounding him on the other side in one smooth motion. As he did so, Dulshobekov Baktylar had taken flight to put in the third desperate tackle in five seconds on the little man but that was ignored with a casual arrogance that spoke to the very roots of the hairs on the back of our necks.
There is a primal arrogance to the man that we cannot fully appreciate until we see him in action. It’s an arrogance that comes with the supreme self-belief that he is the best player on the pitch. And that if he gets going, he isn't going to be stopped.
When he’d got the ball initially, he’d taken it off the toes of Mohammed Rafique without hesitation – the Bengali veteran, in turn, had allowed him to do so whilst displaying the air of a man who simply states “All yours, big man” when his leader comes around.
When he had set out on his baroque run, he’d got going right through the middle of the park... there’s an inimitable beauty to the solo dribble, but when it’s done through the middle rather than the flanks... well... it's the kind of thing that makes people write paeans to your deeds.
As he side-stepped that Baktylar lunge, he swept the ball forward to Lalpekhlua and kept moving forward, trusting his teammate and fully certain of what was coming next. Lalpekhlua stopped the ball dead, drew Mamybekov Amanbek toward him before chipping in a magnificent pass right onto his captain’s path. Without breaking his stride, he simply ignored the pressure Maler Viktor was desperately trying to exert on him and smashed the ball - on the volley - low and hard to the helpless Matiash Pavel’s right.
It was beautiful.
We lost it. Utterly, completely, totally lost it. When we finally settled after what felt like an eternity of simply screaming in joy, the air was torn apart as we filled it with his name.... “CHHETRI! CHHETRI! CHHETRI!”.
Our captain had done it again. Sunil Chhetri had done it again.
The goosebumps on my arm still refuse to go away.
Robert McKee once wrote: “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.” If that is true, then there isn’t a stronger character in football than Sunil Chhetri. The harder things get, the more the crowds and his own team look toward him to deliver, the more pressure that gets heaped on his shoulders – the better he performs. It’s not just the goal scoring, it’s the get-everyone-to-the-finish determination, it’s the confidence he inspires in everyone.
He is our hero, our captain, our leader... our legend.
His goal came at a time when India had been put under the cosh by the Kyrgyz Republic, when his team had quite literally been squeezed back to the edge of their own penalty box. He stepped up, as always, when India needed him the most. His 54th goal (in just 94 games for India) was perhaps the sweetest of them all – it’s put the nation at the doorstep of the AFC Asian Cup.
For Indian football, the road is long, dark, and promises to be filled with innumerable obstacles... we are a long, long, way from becoming even a half-decent team... but we have our solace: the faint light that inspires hope... a hope that allows men to plunge into the darkness with nary a doubt, nary a moment’s hesitation. Like the West Block sings week-in and week-out, “We’ve got Chhetri, Sunil Chhetri... I just don’t think you understand. Oh! when he scores, we go f***ing mad... We’ve got Sunil Chhetri”.
He’s not perfect, he’s not the greatest footballer you’ll see, he doesn’t play for the “best” team in the world... but he’s ours.
And we are his.
We’ve got Chhetri...