Chhetri and Bhutia, first among equals
Despite the fact that it is a team sport, football allows ample scope for individuals to leave indelible impressions with their performances and leave a legacy that could be called a benchmark for those that follow them. And more often than not, the ones who are remembered the most at the end of the day are the scorers.
Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri have been two such outstanding individuals, especially if one takes the last two decades of Indian football into consideration.
Bhaichung was the standard bearer of all statistics for Indian football, until all his figures were bettered by Chhetri. Most goals for the country, most caps for India and now the most goals in National Football League(NFL)/I-League history - all of these batons have passed on from the Sikkimese sniper to his heir.
And it is a fitting comparison.
Bhaichung came through the ranks of the Tashi Namgyal Academy in Sikkim and made his strides as a schoolboy in the Subroto Cup, and Chhetri's classmates from the Army Public School in Delhi still fondly remember how a pre-teen Chhetri would be included routinely in matches involving seniors who were 16 or 17, and he would score audacious goals and often beat teams all by himself.
Bhaichung's first professional contract came through with East Bengal in 1993-94 when he was still a few days short of 17, while Chhetri was still 18 when he was signed up almost nine years later by Mohun Bagan. While Chhetri had the added benefit of playing for a defending champion team in the NFL under a coach as established as Subrata Bhattacharya in his very first season, Bhaichung would take the first edition by storm playing for JCT in 1996-97, emerging as the top scorer of the first season with 14 goals.
Current leading goalscorers
1) Sunil Chhetri - 90 goals 2) Bhaichung Bhutia - 89 goals 3) Abhishek Yadav - 40 goals 4) Ashim Biswas - 40 goals 5) RC Prakash - 38 goals 6) Jeje Lalpekhlua - 38 goals
Bhaichung made his name at East Bengal later, but then also ventured abroad in three separate stints - with Bury in England, and a couple in Malaysia with Perak and Selangor. Chhetri would follow suit with a stint at the Kansas City Wizards in the United States, and then a stint in Sporting Lisbon's B team in 2012-13. Neither venture resulted in much success for either player. But for a football nation where players traditionally aspire for big clubs within the country rather than venturing out, these count for bold moves that told both men where they stood as players and how to hone their skills better.
When Chhetri was breaking into the Indian side around 2004-05, there was no doubt who his strike partner would be. Bhaichung was on top of his game, and had just finished his second stint abroad. He had a few options like Abhishek Yadav, RC Prakash, Ashim Biswas, Manjit Singh and Abdul Hakkim to choose from. Yet Chhetri stood out for his football intelligence, which was quite similar to that of Bhaichung.
Both players instinctively realised that a striker only needs a second to score a goal, but it is more about what you do over the remaining 89 minutes, 59 minutes and 59 seconds that helps win matches. Between Chhetri's debut in 2005 and Bhaichung's last official outing for India in 2011, there were matches where the two played together and created openings not just for each other but for other members of the Indian team with their industry and off-the-ball movements.
The stage that Chhetri is at in his career now is where Bhaichung was when the two of them started gelling together as a pair. In Jeje Lalpekhlua and several other young Indian strikers who are improving every single day, Chhetri probably has more options to support him than Bhaichung ever did in his own heyday.
One critical difference is that Bhaichung was one of the fittest players in the team till he touched his 30s. Soon after, there followed a comical parting of ways with Mohun Bagan after Bhaichung was given permission to participate in a dance reality show and ended up surprising even himself by winning it! The reflexes began to slow, and the goals dried up. Bhaichung then tried to play in more withdrawn roles, with the logic being that a sub-par Bhaichung Bhutia in midfield was worth more than some of the opposition players on the field. Unfortunately, the plans didn't work out as hoped for, and he ended his career with testimonial appearances for global superstars like Zinedine Zidane, a 'farewell' game against a Bayern Munich side led by Phillip Lahm, and a short stint with his own club, United Sikkim.
Chhetri is still fit and hungry, though his form in the last one year has been indifferent. He has the luxury of playing for a crack outfit in Bengaluru FC, and is still arguably one half of the best possible strike combination for the national team. Much like with Bhaichung, Chhetri's demeanour is a good case of white line fever, wherein he is severely competitive on the football pitch, but equally measured and dignified off it.
There are a few more creases on his face, and there are more off days than he used to experience even until three years ago, when he finished Bengaluru's first I-League season as the joint top scorer for the season.
Yet, Sunil Chhetri is far from done. And he reminds us of that fact with every landmark that he passes.