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15 years, 115 matches, 72 goals: On this day, Sunil Chhetri first donned the Indian blue

On this day 15 years ago, Sunil Chhetri made his debut for India against Pakistan.

Rishabh Gupta Rishabh Gupta
New Delhi Updated on: June 12, 2020 19:01 IST
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Image Source : TWITTER/INDIANFOOTBALL

On this day 15 years ago, Sunil Chhetri made his debut for India against Pakistan.

When the Indian team travelled to Pakistan to take part in the National Bank Football Cup, Sunil Chhetri was unsure if he would even make his debut. However, when Sukhwinder Singh, the-then Indian coach, announced the playing XI, Chhetri's name was right at the top - as a forward.

Early in the second half of the game, Chhetri faced a rough tackle to the shins. He limped but stayed on the pitch. Two minutes later, he scored off a rebound from Climax Lawrence to score his first goal for India. 

In euphoria, he ran to celebrate in front of Pakistan fans, thinking they were Indians.

The moment may have been laughed-off in the dressing room, but it also marked the beginning of a stellar international career which continues to stay strong today. It has been 15 years since the day, and Chhetri continues to lead the Indian line-up with the captain's armband. 

Having played 115 matches for the side, he has scored 72 goals -- being the second-highest goalscorer in the world among current footballers. Chhetri is only behind Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, who leads with 99 goals.

He played key roles in India's triumphs in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup (second-highest scorer with 4 goals), the 2011 SAFF Championships (outright top-scorer with 7 goals) and 2012 Nehru Cup (joint-top scorer with 4 goals). Chhetri scored 8 goals in the qualifying campaign for the 2019 Asian Cup and aided a blockbuster start to India's campaign in the main tournament, scoring the opening two goals in India's stunning 4-1 win over Thailand.

In 2018, he posted a video across his social media platforms ahead of India's Intercontinental Cup match against Kenya which attracted mass attention. He urged the people to support the national team in the stadiums, even asking them to "abuse" and "criticise" the side. Following the video, the stadium was sold-out and Chhetri marked the occasion with a brace in 3-0 victory.

Chhetri last scored for India against Oman in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification game in Guwahati. However, India conceded a 1-2 defeat in the game. (ALSO READ: Racism hurtful, it's due to ignorance: Sunil Chhetri)

The Indian football captain is widely regarded as one of the finest match-winners in Indian football. His stints in the USA (Major League Soccer) and Portugal (Sporting Lisbon) played a major role in his development as one of India's most lethal strikers. 

Chhetri has been representing Bengaluru FC in club football since 2013 (with a stint with Mumbai FC in 2015 in ISL) after being a wayfarer in the domestic scene for a long time. He led the club to two I-League titles in 2014 and 2017 and played a major role in the club's run to the 2016 AFC Cup final. Since the club's inclusion in the Indian Super League, he led Bengaluru FC to 2018-19 ISL title as well.

Holding the national record for most international matches and most number of goals for India, Chhetri doesn't plan to stop anytime soon.

"I am fortunate to have played 15 years for my country. It is a dream, 3-4 years more probably and it will be (nearly) 20 years. Who would have thought to play 20 years and so I am living on my dream," Chhetri said in a live interaction with AIFF.

"I don't want to put numbers (on how long I will keep playing). But I am enjoying my football and I am not going away anytime soon."

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