Updated March 25th, 2024 at 19:45 IST

From Sukhi sir, I learned a lot as to what not to do on pitch: Sunil Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri did not need anyone to tutor him on what he had to do on a football pitch but the same can't be said of the talismanic Indian striker when it came to things he was not supposed to do as a player in his early days.

Sunil Chhetri | Image:X.com
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Sunil Chhetri did not need anyone to tutor him on what he had to do on a football pitch but the same can't be said of the talismanic Indian striker when it came to things he was not supposed to do as a player in his early days.

That's where the role of Sukhwinder Singh, the former India player and Chhetri's first coach in international football, assumed significance.

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On the eve of his 150th match for India, the veteran recalled the contributions made by the affable Sukhwinder who "turned the little boy in me into a man." "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," Chhetri told the-aiff.com.

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Chhetri might be an ice-cool presence on the field now, but Sukhwinder played a big role in instilling that calmness in him.

"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.

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"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." In the two decades since making his international debut against Pakistan in Quetta, Chhetri has gone on to become one of India's all-time greatest footballers, though he is not the fearless player he once was.

At 39, he is, understandably, a different footballer but the hunger for goals remains.

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"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. The onus was not on me.

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"Everything is different now, probably because I've played so many games." Chhetri first donned the senior national team jersey on June 12, 2005, in a friendly match against Pakistan in Quetta. He also scored in the 1-1 draw.

Since then, he has made 149 appearances for the national team, netting a record 93 goals.

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Chhetri holds the unique record of scoring at least one goal in his first, 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th and 125th match for the Blue Tigers.

"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." He is also the third-highest active goal-scorer in international football, behind Cristiano Ronaldo (128 goals) and Lionel Messi (106 goals).

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Speaking about his journey so far, Chhetri said, "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.

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"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." Chhetri hoped his achievement will inspire younger players to aim high and give their best.

"I 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.

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"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." The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has decided to felicitate Chhetri for reaching an extraordinary milestone.

The star striker said things have improved a lot for aspiring footballers from the days he started out.

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"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," Chhetri said. 

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Published March 25th, 2024 at 19:45 IST