Former Indian football team coach Sukhwinder Singh has revealed Sunil Chhetri was not his first option and he had doubts about the then young striker who was set to make his international debut against Pakistan in 2005.
"It was a nightmare for me that Bhaichung (Bhutia) wasn't available. It was in Pakistan, and I knew the pressure would be immense. I needed someone who had the trickery, didn't have any fear, and had to be quick," Sukhwinder told the-aiff.com.
India football captain and country's football icon Chhetri is on the verge of adding another feather to his already illustrious cap as he is set to complete 15 years on the international arena on June 12.
"To be honest, Sunil wasn't in my mind at all. He wasn't my first option. I looked around and wondered as to who could fill in the vacuum. It was then I thought about him. But I had my doubts," Sukhwinder said.
"He was short, and in front of physically strong defenders at the international level, did he have a chance?"
"But I knew him. He played under my coaching in JCT and he had shown promises of what he could do on the field. So I backed my coaching instincts and put him in. And he didn't fail me," he maintained.
The Indian team took on Pakistan on the road in June 2005 for a friendly series. Chhetri was 20 and yet to make his international debut.
The opening match began with the summer sun belting down at the full-house Ayub Stadium in Quetta as both sides went all out for the opener. After a tense 45 minutes with India enjoying the upper hand, the deadlock was broken by Chhetri.
"I clearly remember the scene after the goal -- it was truly unforgettable. Sunil toh naughty tha hi humesha, par main uss se zyaada tha (Sunil was always naughty but I was a step ahead of him)," said Shanmugam Venkatesh who was the captain in that game.
"He scored on debut and ran towards the depressed Pakistani fans to celebrate. As soon as I saw him run, I told the others to not follow him. When he turned his head and saw that he was alone, he got scared. He ran back and asked with a beaming laugh -- 'Venky bhai yeh aapne karwaya na?' (Venky bhai, you made this happen right?)."
"Sunil had come into the camp after a great season with JCT. On the first day I saw him going on and on after the training -- practicing free-kicks, and penalties after everyone was done. I walked up to him, saw him from close, and even joked: 'Itna practice mat kar' (Don't practice so much)," he added.