On Football and India – A Conversation With Sunil Chhetri

In August 2008, India’s Blue Tigers prepared for the AFC Challenge Cup final against defending champions Tajikistan, knowing that a victory would end a 24-year wait to return to the Asian Cup. On the night, this daunting prospect wouldn’t be allowed any time to fester. Nine minutes, 19 minutes, 75 minutes—that’s all it took for a freshly minted 24 year old, who had dubbed those 90 minutes the most important of his career, to score a stunning hattrick. It marked what would be one of the first of many instances to come of Sunil Chhetri shouldering that responsibility for his club and country.

A mother and aunt who played for the Nepal women’s football team, a father who played in the army team, and all five maternal uncles also skilled footballers. A baby kicking a balloon before he could even walk, and later, as a boy and a man, remaining interested in kicking a ball, any ball, over anything else; even nearly four decades on. Sunil Chhetri was perhaps always destined for the beautiful game, even though neither he or his family considered it a viable career option growing up. In fact, his father was keen for his son to follow in his military footsteps.

All that changed when, at the age of 17, this boy who had never trained at any academy or represented India in the U-16s or U-19s, caught the eye of the mythical Mohun Bagan after just a few months at Hindustan FC. But destiny, fate, and luck are nothing if not accompanied by hard work. Chhetri, a slight, diminutive boy throughout childhood and in adolescence, had learned very early on that he’d have to work towards success. His earliest dribbling partner aka his mum never went easy on him—he couldn’t beat her until he was thirteen! Football may not have been a realistic dream to harbour back then, but this formative upbringing certainly equipped him with essential qualities that would help him throughout everything to come.

Sunil Chhetri
Artwork by Charbak Dipta

On a call over Zoom, a few days after his final game in India colours, I ask him what his motivation is, whether it’s changed over the years, and how he’s been able to maintain it for so long.

“It [discipline] was kind of inherent, inherited, because of the [Army] background I come from. I had to polish it every year, make minute changes every now and then as the game evolved. So I kept doing that, but I enjoyed it. I wasn’t pressurised. I enjoy eating right. I enjoy getting up early in the morning. I enjoy sleeping at [a decent hour at] night. I think that is the reason why I could sustain it.

“Food is so important and it affects athletes so much—if you tell me something is healthy and it’s going to give me good fuel, I will eat it. I do not care whether it’s bland. I’m not saying that I never took cheat meals. But a majority of the time, if something is healthy and good for me, I don’t care. My taste buds do not control me, so in that context I was quite fortunate. Or maybe I’ve worked really hard at that.”

Nutritional discipline makes an impact only if complemented by the proactive taking care of one’s body, which means strength, conditioning, agility, and the rest of a footballer’s essential toolkit. It was at JCT under the able tutelage of Indian football veteran Sukhwinder Singh that Chhetri kickstarted his physical transformation and learned how to use his physicality, especially as someone lacking height, in the proper, and most effective way. Even today, he is visibly one of the fittest athletes in any room, with nothing letting slip that he is just shy of 40.

Equally important, however, is a deliberate, thoughtful, adaptive quality that is common for all top-level athletes who have managed successful longevity. A three-part 2021 FIFA documentary sheds light on Chhetri’s ability to evolve as a footballer, an athlete, and as a person. And the advice is simple. He has taken something away from every situation in a career that has, like anything over such a long period of time, been anything but a straight line.

“Everything that I know about life, football taught me,” he says in ‘Captain Fantastic’.

Funnily enough, he points to his 2012 Sporting Lisbon stint, where he didn’t start a single game, trained with their B team, and spent only seven months out of his two-year contract, as one of his most transformational experiences. It would be easy—and even logical, given the external facts—to analyse this time and say that it was a shame or that it appeared to be a waste. Until you hear him talk about how that stay broadened his scope of possibility. How he used that seemingly unproductive time in a place where he “couldn’t even comprehend the pace” to soak up all that he could, taking insights and concrete habits home with him.

At Sporting, Sunil Chhetri was satisfied that he was giving his best unlike his time with the Kansas City Wizards when he had allowed the negativity to creep in—and that someone better than him was in the starting position. As it turned out, everything that he learned in Portugal put him in an even better position than before to lead the BFC project on his return. A risky move at the time that paid the richest of football and football history returns, while giving the player long-term stability at a club that quickly became home.

It becomes very easy to let success overwhelm you, whether in terms of the increased pressure and expectation from others and yourself, or the possible, dreaded, complacency. More so if you’re the talisman that Chhetri is and has been for Indian football. 

How does he handle it?

“Initially I was affected and bothered a lot both ways. I was happy when the fans were happy, I was sad when the fans were sad. But as I grew in terms of the number of games I played for the country, when I became the captain, then I realised it is not going to help me. Of course, you’re a human being and when things go completely crazy or outstandingly good, you get affected, but I try to keep that away from my training or from my head, and I try to stay normal and stable.”

We talk more about the nature of success, and it becomes clear that one particular habit has helped him to drown out the chatter, whether good or bad: small, achievable, conscious targets to focus his attention and efforts. 

“It was always about the next ten days of training, the next game, the next tournament. So for me, […] it’s more something that I can see, I can plan for, it’s more achievable. That’s how I’ve done it all my career. I was very conscious about what would happen next.”

Yet, it was a rare instinct that guided arguably one of his most important career decisions—the skipper just knew when the time had come to hang up his international boots. Of course, once that gut feeling hit, he meticulously worked through it alone, for himself, before sharing any news with even his loved ones. He wanted to be absolutely sure.

“I started walking backwards. Why was I feeling like this? Where am I? Where is the national team? How do I feel on the pitch? Who are the other ones who are going to get a chance? I took a lot of time, about a month, then told my parents, my wife, I told Kunaal (BFC media manager and friend). They understood that I would not say anything in haste.”

It’s a later reflection, after the farewell match, that the ability to make a decision like this, on his terms, is a privilege, as is the incredible fact that he could represent (and lead) his country for nearly two decades, giving his all.

“After the game I was really low and really sad [even when he knew it was the right thing], and my wife brought it up in a fashion because she knew I was sad, a silver lining. ‘Think about this’ and it was a valid point. There are so many players in the world who didn’t get a chance for this or that reason. I got a chance for 19 years. I was playing and everything was fine. I got a chance, planned in advance, to say bye to everyone and that’s sadly not very common for superstars.”

This is where I get a glimpse of that famous Chhetri mirth and mischief, a grin accompanying—“Yeah slyly, I just called myself a superstar there, pretty slyly.” 

As our discussion moves ahead, I realise that one key factor that gets lost in the minutiae of technical and tangible discussions of longevity but is as crucial is that of joy. That pure love that first draws you in and keeps you going, even after you’ve “made it”.

“Because pressure at that level is so high and the margin for error is so low that if you don’t love what you’re doing, you will not sustain it.”

A joy, that, of course, transcends the player and transmits to audiences, live and online.

“To give people that kind of joy is a great power to have and not many people have it; to make people, for a majority of the time, happy with what you do, it’s an unbelievable thing. When I’m just thinking about what I do every day, and what I get in return? This is something you never planned for or dreamed of and now you live this life, a very comfortable life, if I may use the word, so bloody comfortable and pampered even! The good thing is that I know that it’s not only me, a lot of people have worked really hard for this finished product. I have nothing but a lot of gratitude.”

Here I witness the earnestness that has characterised his professional conduct on and off the field.

“It’s unbelievable to be Sunil Chhetri, and I hope you get [what I mean] in the right way.”


On August 3, 1984, even as the Chhetri family welcomed a baby boy, Team India were preparing for the AFC Challenge Cup. In October 1984, they won that and qualified for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in 20 years, with a team that included his future father-in-law, Subrata Bhattacharya. But even though they would go on to win gold at the South Asian Games the following year in 1985, successfully defend their title in 1987, and win three SAFF Championships (including the inaugural 1993 edition) before the turn of the new century, the golden years between 1951 and 1964 were already long past—and the country’s sporting status quo had further undergone a paradigm shift, visible only in retrospect, on June 25, 1983.

Indian football fans of my generation grew up with Bhaichung Bhutia, the original modern-day trailblazer and representative for Indian football globally—the first Indian footballer to sign with a European club (Bury) and the second to play professional football in Europe, among other things. He was given the national team captaincy soon after a 20-year-old Chhetri scored on his national team debut in June 2005 (in Quetta, against Pakistan, an eventual 1-1). But, as with so many pathbreaking legends, there is a fear that they’re the last. Given the state of football in India and the lack of a deliberate structure to nurture and produce greats like in cricket, fans were fully justified in this angst. 

In the case of Bhutia’s immediate replacement, however, the journey would be wrought through sheer force of will.

Sunil Chhetri didn’t set out or choose to be the country’s football flagbearer. But it is a fact that he has been uniquely positioned, by destiny, by the experiences life has thrown his way, by his work ethic and the way it has moulded him as a player and person, to be consistent and impactful at the forefront of the game’s fortunes, even beyond all the trophies he’s helped us win. And it is a responsibility that the only footballer to be awarded the Khel Ratna Award has shouldered with his trademark focus and seriousness.

Over the years there has been a sense of the inevitable about him. Who else but him?

But for how long?

For all that our skipper has embodied and continues to—our hopes and dreams, potential and possibility, how things should be, how they are and can be—his inspirational career should be the catapult for the future of a sport that is played by 11, in a country that’s had some glorious chapters in the past and one of its biggest what ifs in World Cup 1950, but has a long way to go if it wants to truly be a serious footballing nation.

It’s not a surprise that Chhetri has a lot to say about the matter. I ask him what he thinks we should be looking for going ahead, for the Blue Tigers.

“See, the way the national team plays, the style and the attributes, is not the most important thing. What is important, and I’ll speak about this in footballing terms but you can add the Olympic sports here too—the common criticism we all have is that in India we are 1.5 billion people and we are still not a superpower in football. One of the most important reasons we neglect is that we don’t tap into the whole talent pool. The day all of them are given the right opportunity at the right time, when they are identified at a very young age; we’re competing with other countries so it has to be young.

“So yeah, once we talent identify at the right age, we give them the right infrastructure, the right education, the right coaching, then half the war is done. Sadly, and I might sound controversial, but we are not a sporting nation. A lot of people might not like what I’m saying, but this is a fact. And by this I also mean the sporting culture. Once we do become a sporting nation and a culture is there, then whatever and wherever we are, we’ll raise our hand and say, ‘you know, this is where our upper limit is’ but right now that’s not the case.

“The national team playing, that is the last part. That is the cherry. Imagine there are thousands and thousands of academies, all standard academies where everything is proper, and those football academies are centrally connected to one [overarching] academy. And information flows everywhere. Once that happens, then you will see that we will improve exponentially in football, and then you can add the same for all the Olympic sports. It’s not rocket science, and once we do that, you’ll see the huge jump.”

It’s the most animated he’s been throughout the chat. I see the same passion, the same concern and endearing sincerity that was evident in his viral heartfelt plea to fans. 

“I don’t think the appetite to grasp sports is not there in our country. It’s tremendous. And one thing I don’t understand, I don’t like when people say that we don’t have talent. We’ve got everything. When you have such a big, diverse pool to choose from, we’ve got to use it.”

I ask him if he’d like to be involved in this, already knowing what the answer is going to be, though I should also have realised that he’s not one to be impulsive about these decisions. 

“Definitely. Football has given me so much. The only caveat is that I don’t want to rush into anything. Because of who you have become, you get a lot of phone calls. But what I don’t want to do is get into something without knowing what value I can bring, or whether I have the stomach for it, or whether it’s interesting. So I will take my time. I will take my time and then come back.”

It’s discipline that allows you to represent your country a record 151 times (a country not even in World Cups, making earning caps that much harder); to score 94 goals and become the fourth all-time international goalscorer and, trailing only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi prior to retirement, the third-highest active international goalscorer; to be the only Indian on that list filled with players from football pedigree countries. It is determination that aids you in playing international football for nearly two decades and allows you to continue being, at almost 40, in prime physical shape as you prepare for a new ISL season.

Captain Sunil Chhetri finished his farewell match as the player with the highest number of sprints, his tenacity on full display as he pressed opponents even as the clock wound down at Salt Lake stadium.

When asked how he’d like to be remembered, the answer is immediate.

“As somebody who gave his best.”

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.