Probably, the defining moment in India’s 4-1 win over Thailand came at the start of the second half when a certain Sunil Chhetri swept a brilliant lay off from Ashique Kuruniyan into the back of the net in one sweeping motion from the edge of the box.
Not only did it restore India’s lead, the goal also dispelled any apprehensions the players might have had after Thailand equalised in the first half. With confidence suddenly restored, Stephen Costantine’s outfit went on to play the opposition out of the park, scoring two more brilliant goals to seal the result on what was one of the brightest nights in Indian football.
It was no surprise to see the jersey number ’11’ score that particular goal, for Chhetri has always been the man for the big occasions for India. It has been the case for quite a while now. He has been an integral part of the team ever since 2005 when he made his international debut
From starring in the AFC Challenge Cup win in 2008 that helped India qualify for the Asian Cup in 2011 to scoring two of the Blue Tigers’ three goals in the 2011 tournament, Chhetri’s penchant for the big moment has been very evident. In the 2008 Challenge Cup, he scored in India’s semifinal win over Myanmar and then went on to register a hat-trick against Tajikistan in the final.
He would go on to score two goals in the 2011 tournament, one against South Korea (penalty) and the other against Bahrain.
It was Chhetri who scored a vital winner in the first match of the qualification round agianst Myanmar last year in injury time. He also scored and assisted in India’s 4-1 win over Macau that saw them qualify for the 2019 edition of the continental tournament.
After close to 14 years of playing for the country, he still remains the most consistent performer for the national team at the age of 34. And he is still one of the most fittest players in the squad and puts in the hard yards for the entirety of the 90 minutes. There is absolutely no sign of him slowing down.
The fitness and longevity is what sets the Bengaluru FC forward apart from the rest of his peers. While there are a few players who are capable of moments of brilliance, none of them are yet capable of doing so on a consistent basis like Chhetri. And that is down to Chhetri’s conditioning, thanks to his work on maintaining his fitness levels.
Much of the credit for that must go to his club – Bengaluru FC.
The Blues, established in 2013, had immediately roped in Chhetri and the 34-year-old has gone to become a flagbearer for them over the years. The South Indian side have won two I-League titles before switching over to the ISL and have also reached the final of the 2016 AFC Cup in their short history. Chhetri has been integral to those achievements, coming up with defining contributions time and time again.
However, the relationship between Chhetri and Bengaluru FC has been mutually beneficial. It is hard not to argue that Chhetri has seen his career burgeon due to professional methods that Bengaluru FC brought into the Indian football circuit.
Bengaluru FC were one of the pioneers in using on-field equipment to assess and improve fitness of players in India. They invested in sports science with physiotherapists, strength & conditoning coaches, dieticians helping the players maintain their optimum physical fitness.
The Blues used to monitor body fat levels of all players and brought it down to less than 10 per cent. The coaching staff changed the way the players eat and the benefits were there for all to see. The injuries to players went down drastically.
This breath of professionalism saw Bengaluru achieve I-League success almost immediately. It has also helped Chhetri elongate his career and maintain his standards despite entering the twilight of his career.
One only has to look at Chhetri’s peers from the 2011 Asian Cup to get a measure of this impact Bengaluru FC have had on him. Chhetri was 26 years old back then and one could argue that he has only improved eight years down the line.
Meanwhile, Anwar Ali (also 26 in 2011) is now part of Mumbai City FC but has hardly had consistent first-team football for the last few seasons. NP Pradeep (then 27) now plays for local clubs down south, having seen his mainstream career end almost four years back.
Clifford Miranda (then 28) has already retired and is into coaching now. Mehrajuddin Wadoo (also 26 back then) has also called time on his career and started coaching. Steven Dias’ and Surkumar Singh’s playing days are also over. The likes of Rakesh Masih and Baldeep Junior (both 23) too didn’t survive the rigours of top level football.
Same case with Gouramangi Singh who last played for NEROCA in the I-League last season.
All this only highlights the fact as much as Chhetri’s presence has helped Bengaluru FC since their inception, the modern methods they have implemented has worked wonders for Chhetri’s career. And India have reaped the rewards.
Of course, Chhetri’s bloody-mindedness in ensuring his body is in sync with his brilliant footballing brain deserves mention. But credit where it is due! Bengaluru FC have certainly had a major role in moulding and even reviving the forward’s club career.