If you were asked to name the player sandwiched between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the scoring chart for most international goals by active players then how quickly would you come up with India striker Sunil Chhetri?
Chhetri scored twice against Thailand at the 2019 Asian Cup to reach 67 goals and overtake Argentina forward Messi’s 65 to move second in the list.
He is still a way off Ronaldo’s 85 goals for Portugal but 34-year-old is also 20th on the all-time list – ahead of not only Messi but the likes of Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, Brazilians Ronaldo and Neymar, and Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Chhetri’s goals came in India’s opening game of the Asian Cup, which is being held in the UAE, and gave his country their first win in the tournament in 55 years.
But who is he?
India’s Captain Fantastic
Chhetri, who plays for Bengaluru Football Club, is nicknamed Captain Fantastic and has long been the standout star of what is generally a limited Indian national team.
His first international goal in 2005 created history because it was the first to be scored in the first football match between India and Pakistan. The game eventually finished 1-1.
He was also essential in securing India their highest achievement of recent times, winning the 2008 Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup – a tournament in which he scored four goals.
In all, he has played 105 games – giving him an average of 0.63 goals per game.
Domestically, his average is slightly less, at a touch under one goal every two games.
His attempts to break into more high-profile leagues has been less productive though. He has had brief periods outside of Indian football in Major League Soccer (making one substitute appearance for Kansas City Wizards) and with Sporting Lisbon’s reserve side, but without success.
However, Chhetri has been one of the few bright spots in India’s persistent underachievement on the international stage, considering the country’s population.
They qualified (by default) for the 1950 World Cup but withdrew after officials decided that the tournament was not important enough to bother with. A move that seems almost unfathomable now.
But they have not come anywhere close to qualifying since and have been almost as bad in attempting to make the Asian Cup finals.
This lack of prowess on the pitch has translated in recent times to dismal crowds for games.
When India hosted the 2018 Intercontinental Cup, so few came to witness the team’s opening 5-0 win against Chinese Taipei that Chhetri – who scored a hat-trick in the game – put a video on Twitter pleading for more fans to come.
The video went viral in the country after being re-tweeted by top cricket stars Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli, and saw India play to much bigger crowds for their final two games.