ONE OF THE BIGGEST present-day footballing icons of India, Sunil Chhetri turns 31 today. Born to football-playing parents (father played for Indian Army, mother and her sister played international football for the Nepal Womens' Team) in Secunderabad, Chhetri's 14-year-career has taken him to far corners of the planet, and his performances for the national team has sealed his place in Indian football history as one of the most prolific strikers the country has ever produced.
A football journey that started in 2001 as a youth player for Delhi's City FC reached a turning point when Mohun Bagan recruited him into their senior team. After 3 seasons at the Kolkata club where he was used sparingly, he broke into regular starter status at JCT, helping his club finish in the top 3 at the NFL/I-League. At the same time he debuted for India, and soon became an integral part of the national team's attack.
He rose to prominence in 2007, when his multiple goal-scoring shifts helped India reach the Nehru Cup final, which India won by beating Syria 1-0, with N P Pradeep's goal clinching the title. His performance earned him the AIFF Player of the Year award for the first time. The very next year he scored 4 goals in the AFC Challenge Cup tournament, helping India to triumph over Afghanistan in the final with an assist. His performance started being noticed by clubs from Europe and the USA. Clubs like Celtic, QPR, were keeping a tab on him, and after he helped Dempo win the I-League title in 2009-10, he left for MLS club Kansas City Wizard, where he made his debut in a friendly against Manchester United. His time there however was cut short by a long spell with the Indian team culminating with the 2011 Asian Cup.
After his MLS stint he returned to India and had spells at Chirag United and Mohun Bagan. But another opportunity to venture abroad came along when Sporting Lisbon signed him for their B side, which plays in Portugal's Segunda Division. Once there, he had trouble getting much playing time; after 3 league appearances he was loaned back to Dempo for the remainder of his contract. But the hard training sessions he underwent at Lisbon paid off when newly-formed club Bengaluru FC took him on. Under his leadership, Bengaluru FC won the I-League title on their debut season, and Chhetri, with 14 goals, became one of the top scorers of the tournament, the first Indian to do so since Baichung Bhutia in the 2007-08 season.
Till date, Sunil Chhetri remains Blue Tigers' go-to guy when it comes to scoring goals. He continues to lead both his national team and club side, where he is the idol of many of the younger players. He has already surpassed the record of scoring the most number of goals for India previously held by Baichung Bhutia, and shows no sign of slowing down. He has won 3 Nehru Cups, 1 AFC Challenge Cup and 1 SAFF Championship with India, the I-League with Dempo, Churchill Brothers and Bengaluru FC and the Federation Cup with Bengaluru FC. He has won the AIFF Player of the Year award 4 times, and he has become the new face of Indian football since Baichung hung up his boots. It's little wonder that at the 2015 ISL Player Auction he commanded the highest purchasing price tag of Rs 1.20 crore.
Today, as his 31st birthday rolls along, Sunil is busy at Bengaluru FC's pre-season efforts. Soon he will leave for the national team training camp, as the Blue Tigers prepare to take on Nepal in a friendly, then Iran in a World Cup qualifier match. Soon afterwards, Sunil will arrive at Mumbai to make his debut at the ISL for his new team Mumbai City, starting a whole new chapter in his playing career.
Even as fans and followers shower him with good wishes on his birthday, Chhetri, already an Indian football legend, is busy at his toils, plotting his journey to the next big milestone in his long illustrious career that shows no sign of approaching an end.