Ronaldo, Chhetri, Messi: the records don’t lie. We all recognise 35-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo as the real-life superhero who has pocketed five Ballon D’Or awards (for the best player in the world) and 30 major trophies, while scoring 101 goals for Portugal. That’s the most of any active player. His constant rival Lionel Messi has six of his own Ballons D’Or, plus 34 major trophies, as well as 71 goals for Argentina. While undeniably spectacular, that tally ranks Messi only third in the world, because just ahead is the jaunty India number 11. Sunil Chhetri is the second highest scorer amongst active players, and tenth (and rising) in football history.
The scale of this achievement is so off the charts, it’s almost impossible to compute. Ronaldo and Messi play for football-obsessed championship-winning nations, and have spent their entire adult lives cosseted in the elite apex of the game. But Chhetri – to put it mildly – plays for one of the world’s most famous losers, because India is accustomed to dwell at the very bottom of the global football cellar. In 2005, when Chhetri donned the national colours for the first time, FIFA ranked India number 131, just behind the tiny Kingdom of Eswatini (yes, it does exist, in southern Africa). For additional perspective, several slots ahead was the Faroe Islands team, which is drawn from a grand total of 45,000 citizens.
But, as he alludes, another culprit in the stunting of Indian football (and hockey, and athletics et al) is India’s unhealthy obsession with cricket, the black hole sucking up all the attention that could be paid to other sports, which is played competitively by precisely 12 countries (of which Ireland and Afghanistan barely count). It is downright strange how Kohli and company beat up on tiny nations like New Zealand (total population: 5 million) and Zimbabwe (15 million), and every eyeball and all the money in the country swivels in that direction. Yet, in the global game, we have an outstanding home-grown superstar at the height of his powers, and it’s only now that Sunil Chhetri is getting his due.
The captain is too much the gentleman to complain. He told me straight up, “It doesn’t bother me at all. What is important is that I’m enjoying myself much more than I could have ever anticipated, and we are making good progress. To be honest, the difference in the status between cricket and football in this country can’t be an issue to me, because I know I’m playing the best game in the world. There’s no competition.”
In some ways, the enhanced status of Indian football was evident in the circumstances of our meetings. Chhetri was just down the road from my home in Panjim, the pocket-sized capital of Goa. But we were face-to-face on Zoom, rather than in person, because he was deep inside the intricate multi-million-dollar bubble thrown up around all 11 teams in the Indian Super League, who’ve been moved “lock, stock and barrel” from their home cities to play out the entire season in India’s smallest state. Protocols are assiduously maintained: no one goes in or out, everyone is constantly tested, and the matches are held in empty stadiums with even the ball boys herded apart at several metres distance.
Some teams responded to these onerous conditions better than others. Bengaluru has notably struggled, with the 2018-2019 championship winners suffering an unaccountably extinguished attack, and languishing in the middle of the league table (which resulted in the firing of head coach Carles Cuadrat on January 6). “It has been surprisingly difficult,” says Chhetri, “which is not something I’d expected, since my life has anyway been built around continuous, monotonous hard work and disciplined routines. But, you know, it’s actually really tough to play with passion without the fans, because they give us so much energy and excitement. I love that experience and miss it a lot. So, it’s hard, even though we all know it’s important to get out there and bring joy to people because it’s the need of the hour.”
It’s been a long journey to privileged stardom for the deceptively slender, preternaturally determined 36-year-old, who has already spent half his life in professional football. Chhetri says he “was born with the gene” because his father was on the Indian Army team (he spent his career in its Electronics and Mechanical Engineering corps) and his mother played for Nepal, along with her twin sister. There’s an interesting biographical similarity with Sachin Tendulkar, who credits his mother for being his first bowler, because it’s Sushila Chhetri who ignited a competitive fire in her son. The India captain tells me – genuine admiration in his voice – that his mom still battles him hardest in the impromptu games that have become a family ritual over the years, where “she’s always the highest scorer!”
That’s an essential insight into Chhetri’s psychological foundations, which I suspect is integral to his famous equanimity: his strongest relationships are all with women. That tight-knit core extends from mother and sister (whose sports management company represents him), to his sparkling wife Sonam (who is herself football royalty, the daughter of Mohun Bagan legend Subrata Bhattacharya). But there’s more: When I asked Chhetri about his ultimate role model – fully expecting him to name someone like David Beckham or maybe Michael Jordan – he delighted me by expressing his reverence for the boxing champion Mary Kom, saying, “Without a doubt it’s her. Just imagine, you give birth, and then win another world title, and then do it all over again! That is amazing hunger. We all have to learn from her!”
I asked the Indian captain about the difference between his 20-year-old self on debut in Balochistan, and the veteran who takes the field today. Chhetri paused to think, then said, “Above all, I am much calmer, not just as a player but as a human being. When I was younger, I would try to do anything to win, and become angry and agitated when it didn’t happen. Now there’s much less negative or wasted energy, and I know what works for me. It’s all about sleep, diet, training, how to prepare for match day, and then, of course, how to deal with everyone’s reactions: I’ve become aware of what my sweet spot is, and am blessed to have everyone around me ensure that I get to do what I enjoy with no unnecessary hassles.”
For many years, that crucial aspect in the footballer’s life has been provided by his wife Sonam – she is even in the bubble with him in Goa – and even though we were only able to communicate via Zoom, it was easy to see his demeanour, voice and expressions soften with affection whenever he mentioned her. Theirs is a famous love story characterised by irresistible attraction, which dates back to when Chhetri began his playing career under Subrata Bhattacharya at Mohun Bagan. He was just 19 himself, and received an enthusiastic text from a fan, but when they arranged to meet, he found a 16-year-old, whom he dismissed with something like, “get lost and grow up.” But she persisted, and they began to text back and forth, until he happened to see the contact list on his coach’s phone and was dumbfounded to discover the girl was his daughter.
This led to all kinds of antics. Sonam recalls, “One time my dad invited Sunil for dinner at our home, and introduced him to everyone, including me. Little did he know that we had met that afternoon, and watched a movie together, but we did a really good job of keeping a straight face and expressing part-surprise at home.” Finally, in 2016, “Sunil turned up in his best at our door at 8am. My father was surprised to see him and asked him why he was dressed up like he was. Sunil cut straight to the chase and told him about us, and that he wanted to marry me. My dad told him that he had chosen Sunil [on the Bagan team] before his daughter did, so he had no second thoughts with his consent.”
While Sonam and Sunil both represent the living multi-generational legacy of football in the subcontinent, they have also witnessed – and been part of – the dramatic changes that have transformed the cultural, social and economic landscape of the game in India.
In this country, the game-changer was the ISL, which arrived like an all-conquering juggernaut, with big-name coaches and players from around the world. Still, its impact on Indian football has not been entirely positive. In many ways, the centrepiece of that process is Chhetri’s own Bengaluru FC – it is sponsored by the iron and steel conglomerate JSW – where the most vibrant and committed home-grown ISL fan culture has sprouted, characterised by the raucous supporters association, the West Block Blues.
When the time came to ask Chhetri himself about what has compelled all the changes in Indian football, in which he represents the vanguard, he told me, “There’s no doubt in my mind it is the ISL that has helped us leap forward. I know there are lots of critics, and some of what they say is valid, but what I see is our boys are improving faster and better than they ever would have otherwise. Coaching, training, nutrition, everything has improved. Believe me, I can tell you from the field perspective, each year, the quality of the imported players has improved, and as a result they have pushed each and every Indian kid in the league to become better. As a footballing nation, we are progressing fast, and I am really hopeful now.”
On that occasion, Chhetri and I were speaking past 8pm, in his last interaction before going to bed – his diet, training schedule and sleep routines are strictly non-negotiable – and this all-time legend of Indian football was visibly relaxed. He spent a minute scanning the overstuffed bookshelves behind me that were visible on his screen, and said that reading was another of his passions: “At this point in my life, I want to gather knowledge and learn new and different things. I’m interested in the cosmos and space, what is up there in the skies.” Then, looking a bit shy for a second, he told me he had been studying all the implications of the Pythagoras theorem.
Our conversation was taking place just after the death of Diego Maradona, the immortal Argentine master who was being eulogised worldwide, after his stunning rollercoaster career yielded some of the most shining – and also tarnished – moments in the history of football. That is when Chhetri unnerved me by saying, “Look, I don’t think that I’m a world class player. I wouldn’t be great in any professional league.” The celebrated captain of India, who’s scored 72 goals for the country, told me with sincere humility. “Don’t get it wrong, I’m really proud of my achievements. You know that I play with a lot of confidence. But what’s the point in misconceptions?”
Then, just before signing off and heading to bed, Chhetri returned to the topic of Maradona, another diminutive footballer who carried the weight of his nation’s aspirations on the football pitch. He said, “One thing that keeps coming back to me is the enjoyment with which he played. That’s the biggest thing he taught me. Football is so much fun, and I’ve always loved it. That same feeling I had when I was young, and no one was watching, is still what’s most important in my game now, at 36. No matter what you’re going through, despite the records and trophies and pressure, just go out and play, and play with joy.”