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July 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.         June 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:May' 2018

HITS & MISSES

The Chhetri magic

K DATTA

Sunil Chhetri

At a time when the planet is in the grip of the football World Cup in Russia to put pen to paper in praise of our own, Sunil Chhetri would seem to be a wasteful exercise. There can be no comparison between the global stage in Russia and the platform on which Chhetri played his 100th game for India, a four-team event in Mumbai called the Inter-Continental Cup.

Yet, for Indian football it was an occasion to celebrate before the World Cup kicked off at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. It was a historic moment made all the more memorable by the hattrick by Chhetri in India’s 5-0 victory over Chinese Taipei. Only Baichung Bhutia, whom Chhetri has succeeded as India’s captain, has played more internationals for India – 104, to be exact. Chhetri’s historic feat was hailed by lay fans and celebrities alike, including laudatory messages by the sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh and cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar.

But for all the history attached to the moment, Chhetri regretfully complained that there were only 2569 spectators at the Mumbai stadium to cheer the Indian team. It led to his going public with an anguished appeal for more spectator support. The plea did touch the heart as there were near-full houses in the 10,000 capacity stadium for India’s subsequent matches in the tournament.

It is said that passionate support for a team from the stands is like providing it an extra player on the pitch. With Chhetri scoring two more goals, India defeated Kenya, 3-0, in their second match of the four-team league to make sure of a place in the final, The two goals scored against the Kenyans took Chhetri’s to 59 in 100 matches.

Watching history being created were former Indian captains IM Vijayan and Bhutia, who flew down from wherever they happened to be in response to Chhetri’s appeal. Chhetri is “the best.” That said it all about Chhetri, who will be 34 next month.

Chhetri is not getting younger anymore. But seeing the way he has looked after his fitness there is still much football left in the diminutive player who started his career on the football grounds of his school before going on play for Delhi’s City Club as a teen-ager. As a superstar he now plays for Bengaluru F.C. While still a junior, he was considered good enough for a place in India’s senior team as well.

In the days when stardom was beckoning the lad, this writer, seeking the young man’s mobile number, remembers how his exarmyman father politely being told he was still too young to possess one, or something to that effect: an example of a protective parent taking care to keep the son from getting spoilt. How times have changed. Nowadays children carry cell phones in their schoolbags even if they are not supposed to do so.

Sunil, at 33, still remains unspoilt in spite of the accolades that keep coming. The latest was “player of the year” award conferred on him in Kolkata last month by his peers in the Football Players Association of India. Scoring eight of India's 11 goals in the Inter-Continental Cup, he took his tally of international goals to 64, equalling the number of goals Lionel Messi has scored for Argentina.

Chhetri laughs it off when people make comparisons. There can be no comparisons, he says with modest humility. Messi belongs to an altogether different class. Messi and others like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo have plied their trade in the highest echelons of football. India does not belong there. India is a long way behind. “Please do not take it seriously. I am proud to have scored for my country, and that is more important. I will be happy if I can score in the Asian Cup,” he was quoted as saying at the Kolkata function.

Chhetri is keeping his focus on the Jan 5-Feb 1, 2019 Asian Cup which will be played in the United Arab Republic. He has pleaded, and rightly so, for matches against stronger teams in preparation for the tournament.

Sunil, at 33, remains unspoilt in spite of the accolades that keep coming. The latest was “player of the year” award conferred on him in Kolkata last month by his peers in the Football Players Association of India. Scoring eight of India's 11 goals in the InterContinental Cup, he took his tally of international goals to 64, equalling the number of goals Lionel Messi has scored for Argentina.


To return to Sunil’s entreaty for better attendances. It was not always the case in Indian football. I-League matches attract a couple of a thousand fans. Coach Stephen Constantine of Indian football team believes the Indian team, now placed 97 in the world ranking list, has done enough to deserve better respect. There is no need to go begging for fan support, he says. Once upon a time gates of the Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium had to be shut much before kick-off time, such was the rush for entering the stadium at Durand Cup matches. There was no dearth of spectators also at other centres. The trend of diminishing the importance of major tournaments like the Durand, IFA Shield of Kolkata and Rovers Cup of Mumbai, to mention just a few, has done much damage to Indian football.

In April this year Vijayan was angry that the All India Football Federation failed to arrange for a telecast of the final of the Santosh Trophy at Kolkata, which Kerala won the for the sixth time defeating West Bengal in a penalty shoot-out. For all the new-found importance given to the ILeague, not to mention the fancied ISL, the Santosh Trophy remains emblematic of national football supremacy. When several years ago the final stages of the Santosh Trophy were played out at Gurugram, Haryana, one could count at least half a dozen OB vans belonging Kerala TV channels beaming the games live to the football-loving state.

Where have the all the fans who once thronged the football stadia gone? Only stars like Sunil Chhetri, and his poignant appeals with palms joined in the namaskar manner will bring them back, as it happened at the Mumbai Football Arena.