Sunil Chhetri biography
The all-time top scorer for the Indian football team and its captain for the better part of a decade, Sunil Chhetri is one of the most decorated footballers in India.
Chhetri’s 72 goals for the Indian national team also makes him the second-most prolific international goal-scorer among active male footballers, only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and ahead of the legendary Lionel Messi.
Born in Secunderabad in then Andhra Pradesh on August 3, 1984, football came naturally to Sunil Chhetri. His army man father KB Chhetri had played the sport in his younger days while mother Sushila had played for the Nepal national football team.
As an army kid, Sunil Chhetri travelled the country, changing schools frequently. The one thing that did not change was his passion for football.
Chhetri excelled in football for every school he represented but strangely never considered becoming a professional footballer. His only motivation was to use the sport as a means to gain entry to a reputed college and continue his education.
Destiny had different plans for Sunil Chhetri though.
A 16-year-old Sunil Chhetri had enrolled for the 12th grade at a college in New Delhi when he was called up to the Indian team to play in the Asian School Championships in Kuala Lumpur in 2001.
As luck would have it, Mohun Bagan – one of India’s oldest and most famous football clubs – spotted Sunil Chhetri’s talent and signed him for the upcoming domestic season. He has not looked back since.
Sunil Chhetri displayed his goal-scoring instincts and ability to be in the right place at the right time over the next eight years in Indian football for Mohun Bagan, JCT, East Bengal and Dempo.
This led to some interest from foreign clubs and Chhetri even had a trial with Coventry City in England in 2007 but a move did not materialise.
Chhetri’s desire to play in England was almost fulfilled as London-based club Queens Park Rangers offered him a contract but issues with a UK work permit put paid to that opportunity.
In 2010 though, Sunil Chhetri then became only the third Indian footballer - after Mohammad Salim and Bhaichung Bhutia – to play in a foreign league when he signed for Kansas City Wizards in the USA’s Major League Soccer. However, he returned to India after a season, signing for Chirag United in 2011.
All this time, his international career was thriving. Sunil Chhetri was first called up to the senior Indian football team in 2005, and he scored his first goal against Pakistan.
The 2007 Nehru Cup was Sunil Chhetri’s first international tournament and his four goals helped India lift the trophy for the first time since 1997.
Chhetri continued to shine, scoring four goals in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, including a hat-trick in the final, as India won the tournament. It firmly established him as the poster boy of Indian football.
Sunil Chhetri was a key part of India’s victorious 2009 Nehru Cup campaign and his moment under the sun came at the 2011 SAFF Championship.
Sunil top-scored with seven goals – the most in a single edition, including three in the semi-finals and final - as India lifted the trophy at home in New Delhi. He was also named the player of the tournament.
Sunil Chhetri also played at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup and was first named the national team captain at the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers and led India to yet another Nehru Cup trophy in 2012.
Sporting Clube de Portugal (Sporting CP) came calling in 2012 as Sunil Chhetri ventured for a second stint in a foreign league. He made five appearances for their reserve side before coming back to India and signing for Bengaluru FC in the erstwhile I-League, which further helped him establish his credentials.
Chhetri was prolific for Bengaluru FC in his two seasons, and Mumbai City FC made him the most expensive Indian player in 2015 in the then newly-formed Indian Super League (ISL).
Sunil Chhetri continued to score heavily, becoming the first Indian to score a hat-trick in the ISL, helping Mumbai City FC reach the playoffs for the first time in 2016.
Lesser game time meant that he was then loaned back to Bengaluru in the I-League. When the club entered the ISL as Bengaluru FC in 2017-18, Chhetri’s goals helped them reach the final on their debut season, which they lost.
However, Sunil Chhetri was on fire the next season as he captained Bengaluru FC to a second-consecutive ISL final, where they won the title against FC Goa.
At the 2018 Intercontinental Cup, Sunil Chhetri played his 100th game for the Indian football team against Kenya – where he scored a brace – and his returns helped the team win the trophy. He also equalled Lionel Messi’s record of 64 international goals at the event and has since pulled clear of the Argentinian legend.
A record six-time All India Football Federation (AIFF) Player of the Year, Sunil Chhetri is still going strong for Bengaluru FC and the Indian football team.
Along with athletes like Virat Kohli and PV Sindhu, Sunil Chhetri is one of India’s best sporting icons and an inspiration to the next generation of Indian footballers.