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Sunil Chhetri playing for Bengaluru FC in a 2017 ISL match. Photo: AP
Sunil Chhetri playing for Bengaluru FC in a 2017 ISL match. Photo: AP

How journeyman Sunil Chhetri put down roots

Since beginning his professional career with Mohun Bagan in 2002, Sunil Chhetri has played for 10 clubs across five states and three countries

Sunil Chhetri is a relieved man. On 20 November, the Bengaluru FC and Indian captain got engaged to his long-time girlfriend, Sonam Bhattacharya.

“Fortunately, I didn’t need to sing or dance. I had it rather easy and for that I will always be grateful to her. We’ve been best friends for all this while, so there wasn’t really any question of being nervous," he says.

On 4 December, he exchanged wedding vows and joked about the number of ensembles he had to wear for the occasion. On the field though, Chhetri wasn’t exactly known for forging long-lasting associations with clubs.

Now 33, the diminutive striker has never been one to shirk a challenge. He has been a gypsy of sorts, beginning his professional career with Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan in 2002, when he was 17. Since then, he has played for 10 clubs across five states and three countries. Six states, if you include his youth club City FC, a Delhi-based amateur team. In 2010, he travelled to Missouri, US, to play for Major League Soccer outfit Sporting Kansas City, but did not play a single match. In October 2012, he made his debut for Portuguese second-division outfit Sporting CP B, though he would make just two more appearances for them.

From 2002-13, Chhetri never spent more than three years at a club. “I wasn’t really looking for stability," he says.

Sixteen years after his debut, he is at the top. In June, he broke into the top five highest active international goal-scorers. With 56 goals for India, he is only behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, David Villa and Clint Dempsey.

When his ninth club approached him in 2013, Chhetri was 29, and at his peak. The team that approached him was a just couple of months old.

Bengaluru FC made a statement when they recruited India’s captain. “I’m used to taking burdens and I’m going to give everything I am capable of to this club. I’m not setting any targets but I’m sure we can achieve a lot of things if we stick together," Chettri told the press when he joined the club.

It’s been four years, and Chhetri is still at Bengaluru FC. This is now officially his longest stint at any football club, albeit one that has been punctuated by loan spells with the Indian Super League’s (ISL’s) Mumbai City FC. The traveller who wasn’t seeking shelter, unexpectedly found a home, an extremely competent one.

Since its formation, the club’s rise has been meteoric—and he has played a crucial role in the ascent. BFC won the I-League twice (2013–14 and 2016–17). In 2016, they became the first Indian outfit to reach the AFC Cup finals.

The Blues made their ISL debut this November and entered the competition as one of the favourites. They’re one of the two teams that haven’t changed managers entering season 4. They’ve retained the nucleus of their squad, which includes the centre-back pairing of John Johnson and Juanan, and winger Udanta Singh.

Bengaluru won their first ISL game 2-0 against Mumbai City FC last month, with Chhetri scoring a late opportunistic second. His side has won three of their opening four games. Four days after his wedding, he was part of the starting elven against NorthEast United FC.

“When I did find it (longevity) in BFC, I wasn’t willing to throw it away. There are too many things that are special about this club. But the biggest factor is the way everyone at the club feels about it—the owners, staff, management, players and fans. This is family," says Chhetri who, at No.100, is the only Indian footballer to have made it to the Forbes India Celebrity 100 list, with annual earnings of Rs2.3 crore.

A large part of Chhetri’s success is down to his ability to shield the ball in tight situations. On most occasions, he’s up against defenders far more imposing than him. He can’t simply afford to stay static in the box.

“You have to put your head down and keep working hard. You could be blessed with all the skills in the world but eventually hard work will have a final say. I have also been blessed with fantastic people on and off the pitch who have always been around me, working as a sounding board," he says.

While the possibility of hanging up his boots hasn’t loomed large, questions continue to pop up from time to time. When he does retire, how does he want to be remembered?

“I’m going to have to answer that in another 10 years from now" says Sunil Chhetri, no longer the journeyman but a torchbearer for Indian football.

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