The entire sub-continent is in football frenzy. As the 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off, India’s football team has clinched the 2018 Intercontinental Cup trophy. The team’s captain, Sunil Chhetri, has been all over the news for his incredible performance on field. Currently, he is second on the list of active international goal-scorers, just behind Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and ahead of Argentine Lionel Messi. Chhetri has proved that he is vital to Indian football in more ways than one.
The popularity of the sport in India has steadily grown over the years. The 2018 FIFA World Cup
will see Indian fans make a beeline for stadiums in Russia. After all, it stands third in tickets
sales for a nation that does not have its team participating! However, the scenario back home is
starkly different. Near-empty stadiums at the Intercontinental Cup matches were one of the
reasons why Chhetri uploaded a video pleading for support from fans. His three-and-a-half-
minute video was one of the most passionate moments of Indian sports. Speaking straight from
the heart, he struck a raw nerve with India’s sports lovers. He also received support from
several top sportspersons including Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina.
Thanks to Chhetri’s video which went viral, Indian fans thronged the stadium to support the
national football team. While cricket had Sachin Tendulkar in the 1990s and 2000s, Indian
football had no clear hero. Bhaichung Bhutia showed some promise for a brief period. But no
one could capture the imagination of Indian fans. That is, until Chhetri spoke in early June. Only
time will tell if he will be able to consistently hold the attention of a cricket-crazy nation. For
now, he’s Indian football’s ray of hope.
Chhetri is the all-time top scorer and the most-capped player for the Indian national team. The
mercurial player began his career at Mohun Bagan FC in 2002. After stints in the USA and
Portugal, he was the break-out performer in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup. The four-time All
India Football Federation (AIFF) Player of the Year led India’s attack in winning three Nehru
Cups and the 2011 SAFF Championship. Chhetri currently sports the colours of Bengaluru FC.
An Arjuna awardee with over 100 matches under his belt, Chhetri is Indian football’s most
recognisable face. He has captured the imagination of Indian football fans by becoming the top
scorer in the recently concluded Intercontinental Cup.
As the focus moves from the Intercontinental Cup to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, exciting times
are ahead for football fans. From June 14, Indian fans will cheer for their favourite international
stars. But as Chhetri said, do spare time to support our footballers.