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Chhetri picks his top five: A lucky debut, a possessed team, and a lung-bursting winner

On the occasion of his 100th international game, India captain Sunil Chhetri looks back at his most memorable moments in the blue shirt.

As told to Debayan Sen

Sunil Chhetri's goal was representative of the transformed state of the Indian team.
Chhetri's goal against Kyrgyzstan in June 2017 helped book India's spot in the upcoming AFC Asian Cup

Pakistan 1-1 India, Quetta, Friendly, June 12, 2005

Your first one will always remain special, no matter what. That (match) will always be special because that's the first time I donned the senior national team jersey, and was also lucky to get my first goal.

When we travelled, Nabi [Syed Rahim Nabi, who played as midfielder, full-back and even striker] and I were travelling for the first time, and we had no chance of featuring.

Sukhwinder sir [former coach Sukhwinder Singh, who also coached Chhetri at JCT between 2005-06 and 2007-08] used to announce the team on the match day itself, but sometimes you can make out the starting eleven one day before in training. We felt we had no chance -- Venky bhai [current assistant coach Shanmugham Venkatesh] was the captain, Jules Alberto Dias was there. The next day, he announced the team, and both Nabi and I were in the team. I can't explain the feeling. I was buzzing already because I was in the national team. It was a great match -- Pakistan came back to hold us after trailing -- and it remains one of the best games of my life.


Also see: 'From the last row, I now sit in the front'


India 1-0 Syria, New Delhi, Nehru Cup final, August 29, 2007

I vividly remember that nobody gave us much of a chance, because Syria were really good. Technically, I think they were far superior and had been dominating the whole tournament [they had beaten India 3-2 in the group stages].

I think that was one game where we collectively played well and produced a stunner. We defended well as a team in what was never an easy game. That was one of the games where lot of things changed for Indian football. People started taking notice of the national team, and we were playing in the Nehru Cup after a long gap [10 years] in India. The standard of the teams that came, barring a few, was really good.

Syria were really good, and beating them in the final via [midfielder] NP Pradeep's goal was really special. That is one game where everybody played really well, and that's why I will choose that game.

Sunil Chhetri's first hat-trick for India came against Tajikistan in the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008.
Chhetri's hat-trick against Tajikistan in 2008 guided the team to a 4-1 victory

India 4-1 Tajikistan, New Delhi, AFC Challenge Cup final, August 13, 2008

This is special not because of my hat-trick, and I'm not trying to be modest here, but simply because of the stakes involved in this game [the winner would qualify for 2011 AFC Asian Cup]. We had been doing quite well in Gachibowli [Hyderabad] and suddenly the match was shifted to Delhi [because of heavy rainfall in Hyderabad]. We watched Tajikistan -- they had knocked out North Korea in the semi-finals.

When we got to Delhi, the nerves were so high. In a tournament like that, even if you have a great tournament, you have one bad game and you don't go to the Asian Cup. It wasn't about the silverware, it was just [the realisation] that no matter what you do, if you lose, everything goes in vain.

We had a great team talk by [then coach] Bob Houghton. He made us understand that it's just a game, and we had to do what we had done through the whole tournament. And it boiled down to how we started [India were 3-0 up inside 23 minutes], it just bamboozled Tajikistan.

They are not a team that loses 4-1, but we just played like we were possessed. [Full-backs] Samir Naik and Surkumar Singh were lunging into overlaps, I still remember [midfielder] Steven Dias was buzzing before the game. Bhaichung bhai [captain Bhaichung Bhutia], Anwar, Mangi [defenders Anwar and Gouramangi Singh], Pal [goalkeeper Subrata Pal]. Everyone went in and just let them know that it won't be easy for them on our turf.


Also see: Chhetri and Bhutia, first among equals


India 0-4 Australia, Doha, AFC Asian Cup, January 10, 2011

It's hard for me to pick one match -- Asian Cup then was just about the experience. It was brilliant. We gave our best and worked as hard as possible, but we missed out on players like Baichung bhai, [winger] Anthony Perreira and [midfielder] Renedy Singh through injuries.

The only small hitch, not regret, that I carry in my heart, is that we gave the other teams far too much respect. Of course, they were to be respected, being first, third and sixth in Asia. South Korea, Bahrain and Australia -- we had the toughest possible group. I still think we gave them a bit too much respect. I think if we were a little more fearless, I am not saying we would have won games, but things would have been different [India lost 5-2 to Bahrain, and 4-1 to South Korea, with Chhetri scoring in both games].

Aside from that, it was a great experience. It's like a World Cup for Asian teams. To qualify there, and going there and rubbing shoulders with the best was a great experience. I find it hard to choose just one game, and getting a couple of goals there meant a huge thing for me personally.

Sunil Chetri and Bhaichung Bhutia on the bench during the match against Kyrgyzstan during the 2009 Nehru Cup. Bhutia and Chhetri both scored in India's 2-1 win.

India 1-0 Kyrgyzstan, Bengaluru, AFC Asian Cup qualifier, June 13, 2017

That game is special, and that is the one why we are here [in the top 100 of FIFA rankings, and qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup]. When I look back at that game, we defended so well. We were facing a team that had a great attack, they were technically better than us and playing with real confidence. We had to dig deep and defend really well.

The game is not about Jeje's pass [striker Jeje Lalpekhlua set Chhetri up with a chip] or my goal, but that game is about how we maintained our 4-4-1-1 formation. How well Gurpreet [goalkeeper Gurpreet Sandhu], Sandesh, Anas [stoppers Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika] marshalled the whole defence. How [midfielder] Eugeneson Lyngdoh was the livewire and the superstar of the team in that game. How well everyone came and defended and backed each other. In the end, the kind of platform it provided us to qualify for the Asian Cup. If we hadn't won that game, it would have been difficult for us.

After we scored, the game opened up, and they were desperate and threw the kitchen sink at us. As a consequence, we got three or four open chances. Robin [substitute striker Robin Singh] and I both missed two sitters each. When I picked that ball up [for the goal], I was in my own half.

My only thought was to make sure I don't give the ball away. When I beat the first guy, I was able to build up some momentum, then I beat the next one, and when the third one came, he slid when he didn't have to. Then I thought, 'you know what? Now it's three versus three.' I saw Holi [striker Holicharan Narzary] to my left, and Jeje, and I thought there's a chance. I gave the ball to Jeje and I just busted my lungs and just ran [into the box].

Generally you don't associate a deft touch with Jeje, but what a ball, man. To think that there's no space, and to chip it as precisely as he did, requires a lot of skill. He's not just a strong guy who scores goals -- he is also very knowledgeable and has a great touch. 

Sunil Chhetri, India's top goal scorer in international football, is set to become the first man from his country to earn a 100 international caps, when he leads India out against Kenya in the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai on June 4.

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