Why the ISL title is a valuable jewel in Sunil Chhetri’s legacy

Natasha Singh
Sunil Chhetri’s legacy keeps getting bigger and better. (Source: PTI)

In 2018, Bengaluru FC topped the table with daylight between them and second-placed Chennaiyin. However, all that hard work was wiped out when they lost in the final. A year's dominance was undone with one defeat and it meant the team was out of AFC tournament.

Also read: On or off the field, Bengaluru FC's consistency is a beautiful anomaly

It was only after the team won the final in extra time on Sunday, that the team's captain Sunil Chhetri spoke about how much the trophy meant to the team.

"Last year after the final, I said next year we’ll come back," said Chhetri after the final. "Right from the ball boy to Carles (Cuadrat-the coach), everyone wanted this. We wanted to win it badly. When you lose the way we did last year, it’s sweet to win this one. Asia, we are back."

For Chhetri, the trophy comes when his dominance on the pitch has reduced and the number of goals has fallen. In the 2018 edition of ISL, Chhetri scored 14 goals, but this year he scored just nine, and went goalless for eight games.

He's had to adjust to new coach Carles Cuadrat and with Venezuelan striker Miku injured for most of the season, Chhetri’s role in the team's build-up play also changed. Last year, Chhetri and Miku scored 24 goals between them. Chhetri was also more involved on the pitch in the previous season, something he was unable to replicate this year.

A career with plenty of highs

Sunil Chhetri is the highest paid Indian footballer. (Source: AP)

Chhetri has been a critical part of Bengaluru FC’s plans for the last five years now. He helped ensure Bengaluru made the shift from I-League to ISL effortlessly. He has already led the Blues to I-League titles in their debut season in 2013-14 and again in 2015-2016, two Fed Cup wins and the final of the 2016 AFC Cup.

The 34-year-old has also come a long way from being touted as the next Bhaichung Bhutia to defining his own legacy in the sport over 18 years. At an age where players see their playing time being limited, Chhetri remains a crucial part of the Bengaluru and Indian squad.

He now has 67 goals from 105 international appearances, and during his career has played for Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, JCT FC, Dempo, Churchill Brothers and even two International clubs.

Chhetri is the highest-paid Indian football player, and was retained by Bengaluru FC at Rs 1.5 crore per season at the 2017 ISL auction. He recently became the sixth Indian football player to be awarded the Padma Shri-India's fourth highest civilian award-and has been a recipient of the Arjuna Award as well.

In a cricket-crazy nation, Chhetri has also become the voice of Indian football, with a video appealing to Indian fans becoming the most retweeted tweet of 2018 and leading to a packed Mumbai stadium.

In a legacy that will survive long after he's done playing football, the ISL trophy may not be the biggest achievement for the flagbearer of Indian football. But it also shows that while his influence may wane over the years, Chhetri's hunger for trophies and achieving newer heights will ensure he remains an asset for Indian football.