When Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri almost signed for a top English club
Sunil Chhetri pulled out a spectacular goal during the recently concluded AFC Asian Cup Qualifier against the tenacious Kyrgyzstan. In doing so, he pulled ahead of none other than veteran war-horse Wayne Rooney in the international goal tally with his 54th strike in only 94 appearances, 25 less than the one whom he surpassed.
It also seats him fourth from the top among the active scorers in the highest international goalscorers’ list. He is only behind Cristiano Ronaldo (73 in 139 matches), Lionel Messi in (58 in 118 matches) and American Clint Dempsey (56 in 134 matches) in the overall tally.
But then again he also has played the least number of matches than those three ahead of him. On equal footing, Chhetri can very well march straight ahead, for, his strike is better than them! Ronaldo, Messi and Dempsey chalk up a 0.49, 0.42 and 0.45 strike rate while Chhetri’s more efficient boots bring him a 0.57 goal to match ratio.
There are only three players ahead of him – Neymar Junior (0.68, Brazil), Ali Ashfaq (0.68, Maldives) and Edin Dzeko (0.63, Bosnia) – when it comes to scoring rate.
Needless to say, he is the country’s highest international goal scorer, having overtaken Bhaichung Bhutia’s 43 scalps back in 2013. It is only a matter of time that Chhetri, who is six short of a century of appearances for his country will edge past Bhutia’s 109 India caps as well.
He has expressed his desire to participate in the 2019 Asian Cup to be held in the UAE, should his country qualify.
Chhetri, who turns 33 on August 3 and has at least a couple of high-performance years still in him, needs just six on target to pin him irrevocably on the all-time top-20 – active or retired irrespective – list.
Net any goal that he may at will, there is only one niggle that is constantly at the back of his mind. That of his dream of playing in a European league club. And he has every right to dream of it.
By 2008 Chhetri had begun to attract the coveted attention of top European league clubs. He was sure of securing a deal with then Scottish Champions Celtic and English club, Leeds United but came up a cropper, twice.
In 2009 he took trials at Coventry, once in January, then again in June but couldn’t break through. When August of that year came, news broke that Chhetri had inked a three-year contract with Championship club Queens Park Rangers, popularly called QPR. He was well on his way to eventually become the first Indian player to have his boots trod a Premier League pitch.
His primary QPR contract would have retained him till the 2011 season, the very year when QPR was promoted to the English Premier League. But of course, it was not to be. Chhetri’s work permit visa was declined by the UK government. As per British rules, non-EU players are allowed work visas only if their country is ranked within the 70th position in FIFA rankings.
Even to this day, the issue eats him up. He had gone on to say, “I was close to realising my European dream when I had a three-year contract with English first division Queens Park Rangers (QPR). But my dream was kept on hold after the British government denied me a work permit.
“The rejection hurts to this day and it is something that I would have loved to change if it was in my hands!” His disappointment is evident in his voicing, “Being so close and not getting there is disappointing. I still have a lot of football ahead of me and, hopefully, such opportunities will come knocking again.
“It's not the end of the world, I know, but that one thing means a lot to me. Apart from the rejection, I am content with the way my life and career has shaped up.”
Not intending to give up on his European dream, in November 2011, he and his striker-pal Jeje Lalpekhlua appeared for a trail with the Glasgow Rangers on an invitation. They packed in one game but again their progress was cut short due to visa issues on their way to featuring in a friendly with Hamburg, in Germany.
Rangers’ manager, Ally McCoist, had some nice words to spend on them and even posted so on their official website. As luck would have it Rangers were soon subjected to a transfer embargo.
But Chhetri never broke. A statement he offered in March 2012, emphasises his hope, "There is nothing that I can do but to wait until the end of the I-League in May and see what happens then.”
This denial cuts deep not only for Chettri but for the Indian football dream as well. If Chhetri would have made it to any European league, it would certainly have energised his compatriots as well as those who were thinking of electing football as their career.
The country could very well have experienced a flux of participation from the grassroots. Indian football scene would have perhaps been seen in a better light and who knows what positive developments could that have ushered.
Now as a fan what do we do? Can we do a petition to see our beloved Chhetri don a Premier League shirt?