“Welcome to the 100 Club,” ‘mentor’ Baichung Bhutia, the first Indian footballer to have played 100 international matches told his ‘disciple’ Sunil Chhetri.
A day prior to Chhetri playing his 100th international match for India in the Hero Intercontinental Cup against Kenya on Monday (June 4, 2018), Bhutia spoke at length about his first impression of Chhetri, Chhetri’s evolvement and speciality as a player, the Bhutia-Chhetri partnership and much more.
Do you remember your first meeting with Sunil Chhetri? Was he one of those who just came and shook your hands or did he create an impression?
Sunil at that time was a tiny little boy, all soaked in innocence. He was a jolly good fellow who was enthusiastic about almost everything. I remember Bagan having signed two youngsters that season, both of whom I was told had huge potential – Ashim Biswas and Sunil Chhetri.
How did both of you get along?
He looked a bit lost in the Kolkata maidan and somehow he made me remember of myself as I had also come to Kolkata also at a very young age. I could understand it as he was new to the club and the maidan. Somehow I saw myself in him. And because we spoke the same language it was easier for both to get along well. The comfort level increased and we carried off from there.
Was he more of your disciple or you his mentor?
I feel both. He was willing to work harder than most and our combination clicked. Strikers, they say always hunt in pairs and it is important for both to share a bonding off the field, and that’s where we scored. I feel there hasn’t been any other striking partnership in Indian Football which has scored more goals together at the international level.
How did that happen?
We understood each other the moment someone had the ball. Not that we practised long over it. But there was a telepathy where I knew exactly where Sunil would be running and vice versa. It’s very important for every footballer to have it in his mind.
You were the first-ever Indian footballer to have played 100 matches and Sunil stays a match away. What do 100 matches mean for a footballer?
Welcome to the Club, Sunil, and it’s quite an elite club. Representing your country in 100 international matches is a huge achievement. He has been one of the most-sincere and focussed footballers I have come across. I have seen him grow in front of my eyes for 15 years now and he has been a thorough professional all throughout.
What’s your message for him?
Congratulations! It’s not easy for any Footballer in the world, whichever country you come from to achieve such a feat. What he has accomplished is a result of the sheer hard work put in. He always knew what he wanted and that’s why he was able to evolve as a player.
What do you mean by that?
He has worked a lot on the dead ball situations. At the outset, he wasn’t one of the first choices to take a free-kick. But practice makes it perfect and today he is one of the best dead ball specialists in India, both at the club and at the International level.
He has also worked a lot on the physical part which is a quintessential part for any footballer to succeed at the international level. He has worked a lot in the gym and it shows. That has enabled him to take on the burly defenders and get past them.
What’s the speciality in him that stands out in your eyes?
His ability to read situations is unparalleled. Having played as a striker all throughout, he was positioned as a left winger for his club and even for the national team. It is quite difficult to get goals from that area but his goals didn’t ever dry out. That has stood out.
Where do you see him ending?
The manner he is going at the moment he should continue to play as long as he can. Play football till the time your heart and mind wants. Yeah someday he will have to take a call but it should be the call of his inner self and not anybody else’s. The morning he wakes up and feels he is reluctant to go and practice, the message will come from within. Till then, he needs to enjoy his football and provide enjoyment to us all.