Decoding Sunil Chhetri: Will, perseverance and warrior's resolve
Messi's left foot. Nadal's resilience. Going a bit further back, Bolt's loping stride. Each sporting champion has a variety of skills and attributes but there's always one that puts them a cut above the rest. In this series we look at top Indian athletes and identify that one quality that makes them stand out. This week: Sunil Chhetri hates losing. Even in table tennis.
Who is Sunil Chhetri?
Captain of the Indian national football team, and of Bengaluru FC.
Why the big fuss?
Simply put, India's best footballer currently, and has been for a while now.
What do you like best about Chhetri?
His absolute, 100% all-out-ness.
It's not just that there is no switching off with Chhetri. It's that with him, everything is in sixth gear. All. The. Time. It is exhausting just watching from afar. On the field, he is a frenzied, relentless bundle of energy. Willing himself to run all game, every game, pressing or tracking back. Challenging and winning aerial battles against bigger, taller (sometimes much taller) opponents. Constantly demanding better from those around him.
Off it, he is just the same. He speaks with absurd rapidity, words trampling over each other as several ideas brawl to get out. He celebrates league triumphs by gatecrashing the post-final presser and declaring, "You know what, Asia? We're back!" He grabs collars over monopoly games and cracks television screens over carrom games. He goes on vacation, explicitly to take a break, and then wakes up at dawn to get some push-ups in.
He is, as a close friend observed, obsessed with the idea of giving 100%.
Why do you like it so much?
We can talk about the technical qualities we all know he possesses, but sport is a visceral experience and often it's the intangibles that really speak to you. With him, for me, it's that 100% all-out-ness.
It is what makes the man. It is what grabs you by the scruff and screams in your face when you think 'Chhetri'.
It drives him to win matches on his own. Like he did against Kyrgyzstan in the qualifiers to the 2019 Asian Cup -- an abysmal display lit up by this:
It also drives him to make sacrifices. Like when he spent quite a bit of Bengaluru's ISL semifinal this year against ATK shadowing Prabir Das because the ATK wingback had been identified as a major threat. A 180 minutes spent running up and down the left wing, despite not being anywhere near 100% fit. India's best player playing as an auxiliary leftback because his coach demanded it. These things don't usually happen. He calls himself a "potato" these days, willing to play where the team needs him.
The effects of this intensity, though, are far-reaching. Jeje Lalpekhlua, Robin Singh, CK Vineeth, Miku... his most recent strike partners have played some of their best football when working in tandem with him. That is no accident.
Where does it come from?
There doesn't seem to be one central, sweeping pivot that made him the Chhetri of today. While he talks about heroes of yore in the most glowing terms, there doesn't seem to have been a singular individual he modelled his attitude on.
Where does it come from, then?
A large part of it seems to have been there within him, from the beginning. As a young boy in New Delhi, he shifted from the typically study-oriented Army Public School to football-obsessed Mamta Modern because he wanted to play for a team that would be in contention during the final rounds of important school tournaments. He joined their hostel, despite staying fifteen minutes away, because he wanted it to be all about football, all the time. And he did all this without his father's knowledge, let alone consent. So there was always an element of wanting to prove to his dad that he had made the right choice, but then again, what son doesn't want to prove things to his father?
His father was an army man, his family a loving, stable one. His was not a childhood of plenty, but neither was it one of desperation. He does not fit into that sweeping stereotype of 'street kid using football to escape his childhood'. At age 17, he was working on getting into St. Stephens College, Delhi, when he got an offer from Mohun Bagan. A choice had to be made. The middle-class dream of a college degree from a prestigious institution and the safety of a regular job? Or the volatile, unstructured, not-all-that-lucrative world of early 2000s Indian football? The fact that he picked the the modest contract of Rs. 2.5 lakh per annum with Bagan speaks to the depth of his convictions in his ability and ambition.
He knew he could achieve more, and he set about methodically doing it.
A few years after making that choice, in the early days of his career, he confided to a roommate that his ambition was to be the highest paid player at whichever club he went to. Even if it was by just one rupee. The best get paid the most. And there is only way to become the best.
Speak to anyone from any stage of his career, and the message is consistent -- what set him apart was his work ethic, intensity, and sustained commitment to improve himself.
Bob Houghton, his first coach for India, recalls, "There were a lot of players that were quite talented at that time but didn't have that ambition, but Sunil definitely had it." His former national and club teammate Renedy Singh talks about how he saw Chhetri "taking care of the body, taking care of the diet, and giving 100% in every match."
Sukhwinder Singh, his coach at JCT, asks that Chhetri's professionalism be judged on the simple fact that "he first came to the fore in 2005 and it's been 14 years [15 now]. Yeh nahi ki uska naam hi khel raha hai (It isn't the weight of his reputation that's doing the work for him). Albert Roca, his former coach at Bengaluru FC, insists "his age does not matter. He pushes others and shows amazing intensity."
About his time with Chhetri when the two first broke into the national team, Steven Dias says, "The way he used to work hard, I have never seen any other player doing that. Even after training, he would come up to the room and do his own workout." Bhaichung Bhutia calls him the model "professional", "so focused and hardworking."
That commitment translates to a win-at-all-costs mentality that stretches beyond the confines of the football pitch. Dias recounts an incident where he once beat Chhetri in a 'friendly' game of table tennis. Chhetri was furious, practiced feverishly, pestered him for a rematch, and beat him. "He is like that," says Dias. "He hates losing and if you beat him in something he makes sure he will beat you and then he will get back at you."
As he has progressed in his career, Chhetri has kept upping these fundamental qualities, several notches at a time.
For instance at JCT, where he became a regular starter for the first time, he was known for living up to that worn-out sports cliché about commitment-to-training, "first one in, last one out." He then moved outside India to challenge himself, to not "stagnate". At Kansas City, his response to not being picked for the regular season after a pre-season in which he scored nine goals in six games, was to buckle down and work even harder. His stint at Sporting amped it up further. It may not have worked out, but being around world class professionals showed him just how important it was to keep at it, regardless of level reached. At Bengaluru FC, he has taken it to a plane Indian football has never seen before.
The man is 35 years old. He has won five national league titles. He has been named the AIFF Player of the Year a record six times. He has gone further into Asian club football competition than any Indian skipper before him. He is sandwiched between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi on the list of active International goal scorers. He still loses his head when he gets beat in a game of online Ludo with his mates.
Have you seen this in anyone else?
On the Indian sporting circuit? Virat Kohli.
He may not swear quite as profusely as the captain of the Indian national cricket team does (well, not as publically anyway) but the two appear to share a wavelength. Their all-out-ness is almost physically palpable; an aura that breaks through even the most carefully constructed PR personas. It is what drives them on and on, unwilling to settle, companions in the pursuit of keeping everything going at 100%.