AkasnhLAST UPDATED: Aug. 3, 2020, 5:11 p.m.
New Delhi: He first strode into top-level football when he donned the illustrious green and maroon jersey of reigning I-League champions Mohun Bagan at the tender age of 17.
It was a trial by fire for the talented but raw teenager as he was part of a Mohun Bagan squad that boasted a plethora of stars who have since etched their names in the modern folklore of the hallowed Kolkata 'Maidan'.
With Jose Ramirez Barreto - perhaps the best foreign footballer to ply his trade in India - and former Nigeria international Stephen Abarowei hogging the strikers' role in the first choice XI, Chhetri found it tough to earn playing time during his maiden season at the top level.
That Mohun Bagan squad is arguably the best Indian football has since witnessed and any youngster would have been justified to feel overawed in a dressing room brimming over with star players.
But that trial by fire perhaps intensified the determination and zeal to succeed that the diminutive but tough youngster seemed to have been born with.
Those qualities will ultimately stand him in good stead.
Today, at the ripe age of 36, Sunil Chhetri has established himself as the highest scorer for India with 72 goals in 115 games and the second highest in international football. Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo is the only player who is ahead of him on that star-studded list. The Indian captain has even managed to push Argentine legend Lionel Messi to the third spot while Brazil star Neymar has been relegated to the fourth position.
Through his gritty performances for club and country, he has managed to establish himself at the best striker to represent India since the legendary duo of I.M. Vijayan and Baichung Bhutia donned the blue jersey.
He had tasted success at both club level, international level, and also at an individual level. The Secunderabad born star has tasted success as Indian captain as well as the skipper of the Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League (ISL).
Over time Chhetri has been an infallible warrior of Indian football. He started his international career as the junior partner of the indomitable Bhutia. When Bhutia retired in 2011, the mantle of the leader of the Indian team fell on Chhetri's shoulders.
To his credit, Sunil has improved considerably as a player since then and has led the Indian team successfully over the years.
He has been the key player for India in many triumphs which includes the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008, SAFF Championship in 2011, and the 2012 Nehru Cup. In the qualifiers of the 2019 Asia Cup, Chhetri scored 8 goals which ensured Indian qualification in Asia premier football tournament for the third time in history.
Chhetri started his club-level career in 2002 with Mohun Bagan, where he played for three years before switching to JCT in 2005.
2005 was the year when the Indian football giant made his international debut against the arch-rivals Pakistan, where he scored a goal as well. By the time he emerged as an adroit star where he played for clubs like East Bengal and Dempo SC.
Chhetri was named as the national team captain for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualification which was held in Malaysia. He managed to score 21 goals in the tournament.
Sunil was also successful in garnering attention from the international clubs as well; Queens Park Rangers, Leeds United, Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer, and Celtic F.C. Chhetri is the third Asian player to get signed by Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer.
The Indian national football helped Chhetri in gaining huge fame and achieving success with his marvelous performances. He helped India win the Nehru Cup 3 times in 2007, 2009 and 2012.
1. Joint-tenth highest goal scorer in the history of international football.
2. Awarded the Arjuna Award in 2011.
3. Honored with FPAI Indian Player of the Year in 2009 and 2018.
4. Most Valuable Player at the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup.
5. Player of the tournament at the 2011 SAFF Championship.
6. Chhetri was also the AIFF player of the year five times in 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2017.
7. Highest goal scorer for India with 72 goals in 115 games.