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80 not-out : Why Sunil Chhetri is a phenomenon like no other

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Sunil Chhetri is India's all-time highest goal scorer

AIFF

80 not-out : Why Sunil Chhetri is a phenomenon like no other

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sounak mullick

10/19/2021

Sunil Chhetri recently guided India to their eighth SAFF Cup title, with a 3-0 win over Nepal in the final of the tournament, in the Maldives. The striker netted his 80th goal in national colours, thus equalling Lionel Messi as the joint second-highest active international goal scorer.

Touting Sunil Chhetri as the poster boy of Indian football for the past 10-15 years would be an understatement, he is much beyond that. The striker is largely responsible for keeping the game in relevance in this part of the world, amidst the demi-god status received by his counterparts from the cricket field. While the entire nation was still basking in the hangover of the IPL final, the talismanic player, in a parallel universe, enriched his legacy by guiding India to an eighth SAFF Cup title.

Despite not being one of the most publicly appealing athletes in India, Chhetri has created a niche of his own. Albeit, nine out of ten people wouldn’t fail to recognize his face in a nation 'not-so obsessed' with football. Loads of hard work and numerous tiring sessions, along with self-belief have all summed up to what makes Sunil Chhetri as India’s most successful footballer in the past 50 years. When no one’s there to step up, there’s one man you can always count on!

The latest ‘talk of the town’ which constantly puts Sunil Chhetri on the pedal with players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is just the tip of the iceberg of what the Indian has achieved in his career. Recalling his fables will take hours, but we can get a fair idea based on the statistics we have at our disposal. Chhetri’s initial break at Mohun Bagan, back in 2002, was enough to build on the momentum in his club career, plying trade with clubs like JCT, East Bengal, and Dempo.

A couple of small stints with MLS side Kansas City Wizards and Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon might not have been very fruitful in the context of his career, it surely did uplift his CV and forced the Indian folk to take note of him. Despite the constant change in outfits, his goal-scoring prowess never dwindled, with the goal-counter well over the 100-mark. However, contributing equally towards his club and the national team has remained an unmatched hallmark in his career.

Sunil Chhetri receives an award after India won the 2021 SAFF Cup © Twitter

Sunil Chhetri, with the goal against Nepal in the final of the 2021 SAFF Cup, has taken his overall tally to 80, making him the second-highest active goal-scorer in the world, alongside the Argentine wizard – Lionel Messi. While detractors might argue with the fact that the Indian has largely faced Asian opponents, deeming the stat as skewed, but make no mistake, the feat is as lofty as it meets the eye. Most significantly, it has put the domestic debate to rest, once and for all!

Going strictly by the stats of his predecessors, IM Vijayan, one of the greatest strikers India ever produced, scored 30 goals in 72 matches (0.41 per game), which is indeed a rare feat. Bhaichung Bhutia, next in the fray, was also instrumental with his right foot, amassing 27 goals in 82 matches (0.32 per game). While the Sikkim-based footballer should be credited for reviving the sport in the country, his legacy would be carried forward by Sunil Chhetri a few years later, who with a goal to match ratio of 0.64, is second to none.

Even if we compare his stats with other Asian greats, Sunil does not fall behind. Ali Daei, who held the record for the highest international goals for decades, tops the list with 109 goals from 149 (0.73 per game) matches, while Mokhtar Dharai of Malaysia sits behind, with 89 goals from 142 matches (0.62 per game). Both of the players above-mentioned players have hung up their boots.

Sunil Chhetri closely follows behind, with a realistic chance of getting past Mokhtar in the future. The others in the top 10 list from Asia are Hussein Saeed of Iraq, with 78 strikes from 137 matches (0.56 per game), while UAE’s Ali Mabkhout is at the 10th spot, with an accumulation of 77 goals from 95 matches (0.81 per game). The stats clearly indicate why Sunil is one of the greatest Asian strikers!

Individual stats might not evoke national interests, but make no mistake, if not for Sunil Chhetri, India would have missed out on major wins in the past decade. For the record, the footballer has been the highest/joint-highest goal scorer for India in the 10 of the last 13 international tournaments, having guided them to three SAFF Cup titles and also earning the Blue Tigers a qualification to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, after a gap of eight years. Three Intercontinental Cups and an equal number of Nehru Cups also complement his rich trophy cabinet.

Still going strong at the age of 37, wonder what happens when he decides to call it a day. The Indian is definitely approaching the dusk of his career, with Indian football still on the hunt for his successor. So far, the search has fetched no results, or at least to fill in the shoes. For neutrals, all we can hope is that he inspires the nation to script more wins in the future. Within a month, the veteran will feature in the ISL for Bengaluru FC. But, what Indian fans are really looking forward to is how he continues in the national colours, especially with 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers round the corner. Till then, let’s enjoy the phenomenon - Sunil Chhetri!

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