Indian Football
Twenty years at the top: Sunil Chhetri looks back at his implausible voyage
24 Mar 2024

Soumo Ghosh & Akhil Rawat

AIFF Media Team

GUWAHATI: Sunil Chhetri was born for milestones. Having played his first International in 2005, he has so far earned 149 international caps, 93 goals and 11 trophies for the nation. The captain, leader, and legend, who is on the verge of becoming just the 41st player in football history to have represented their nation in 150 international matches, caught up with the India no. 11 to look back on his glorious career. 


Question: Tell us about your journey with the National Team so far.

Answer: When I started, it never occurred to me that I could play for the country one day. In fact, even a few days back, I was not aware that I was on the verge of such a record. When you pause and think about it, it’s an unbelievable feat. I’m very fortunate, extremely thankful, and highly privileged to be in this state.

I think I’m the only one to play 150 games for the country in India. I’m really fortunate that I got such an opportunity.

Q: When you were initially scouted in the Subroto Cup and the Delhi league, did you ever think that you’d come this far?

A: When I was playing the Subroto Cup in Delhi, I didn’t even think or dream that I would play for the country. The professional setup of playing for a club was too far. There wasn’t any bridge that directly connected your actions to your destination. That is not the case now, as a kid playing in any club knows what he or she has to do to get to where they want. That was not the case in those days. And hence, I never dreamt of playing for the country.

Q: You have scored in your first, 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th, and 125th international games. How do you feel about this stat?

A: I wasn’t aware of this stat. if you ask any player, they will not be thinking about such stats. Even if they know some stats, the moment the kick-off whistle goes, they will forget about it.

Q: What would you describe as the most memorable and the most difficult match you’ve played with the National Team?

A: There are quite a few matches which were quite difficult. For a very strange reason, there was an AFC Challenge Cup after the 2011 AFC Asian Cup that we played in Myanmar. That was the first step towards qualification for the Asian Cup. We played horribly and ended up losing a match that we should not have lost. That was one of the big reasons why we missed out in 2015.

I think the Myanmar game, in particular, we didn’t turn up at all. And what was at stake is exactly why I think it was one of the most difficult games. Not because of the opponents, not for any other reason, but we later realised what an opportunity we missed, if we had carried on, we could have played the Asian Cup in 2015.

Q: What, would you say, is the difference between Sunil Chhetri who made his debut in Quetta in 2005, and the one who is on the verge of playing his 150th international?

A: There are a lot of differences, but that probably comes because of my age and the number of games I’ve played. I’m more experienced now. I know what works for me and what does not. Also, many of my mistakes on the pitch have made me wiser in hindsight. I think I was more fearless back then.

I cared less about what was going on around me, I wasn’t bothered at all, and I’m saying that in a good way. The onus was not on me. Everything is different now, probably because I’ve played so many games.

Q: How much of an influence did Sukhwinder Singh, your first coach in international football, and also your former coach at JCT, have on you?

A: I think when I played under him, that was the right time to do so for me. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I did the right thing. I learned a lot as to what not to do as a player on the pitch, and Sukhi Sir has had a massive role in teaching me things. He allowed me to do the things that came naturally to me.

I wasn’t exactly the thing that a lot of people associate with me today. They call me ‘Captain Cool’, but I wasn’t always so cool and calm.  I was quite mischievous, I was quite haywire. I tried a lot of things on and off the pitch. He helped me understand what serious football is, and with the help of others who came later as well, he had a massive role in turning that little boy in me into a man.

Q: How did you choose the No. 11 jersey?

A: That was the only number available when I started playing club football. When I went to Mohun Bagan, (Jose) Barretto had number 10, Bhaichung Bhai had number 15, and somebody else had nine. The only number available was 11. And I wasn’t too bothered about the jersey number back then. I just wanted to play. Now, yes, I always want the number 11, I like it.

Q: This may be a personal landmark for you, but what impact would you hope it could have on Indian Football?

A: I just hope that I can inspire young players to give their best and keep going. It's probably evident that if you keep working hard and try to do the right things, you can achieve a lot. I’m not very special in a holistic manner. A lot of boys are very talented here, so if you keep working hard, you can have a long career. And for the ones who have supported me, have encouraged me, I want to convey my immense gratitude. You may think that how a boy sitting in Uttar Pradesh or Andaman could make a difference for me, but every bit of support I receive counts. And the common thing between us all is that we all want to see Indian Football do well. 

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