I had settled into my seat when I noticed a member of the flight crew looking quizzically at me. She then walked up and inquired, “Mr Chhetri?” It was then that the penny dropped. I had swapped seats with Sunil Chhetri and it had caught the crew, well, in an off-side position. We had changed positions because I was travelling solo and Chhetri with wife and mother-in-law. I don’t know what Chhetri told the crew but service for me on that Panjim-Kolkata flight was above average.

Indian football captain and forward #11 Sunil Chhetri. (AFP File Photo)

A little over 12 hours earlier, Chhetri had lost an ISL final on penalties. Like most games in the latter half of the 2022-23, he hadn’t started the final but a nasty face injury to Sivasakthi Narayanan meant he had to get in early. For 120 minutes and then some, he played, scoring from a penalty and again in the tie-breaker showing little sign of being rusty.

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Every few minutes our conversation at the airport’s departure gate would be interrupted by people seeking a photograph with him. The only footballer I saw being repeatedly requested for one. Used to this, Chhetri would oblige the person and continue speaking from where he had left off. Most of the conversation was about how difficult it was to take penalties with virtually no run-up. The rest of it was about the final.

“At least I have won ISL. Sandesh (Jhingan) has played four finals and lost them all. Just think about how he is feeling.” It explained why while at East Bengal, he had pointed out to HT that the quality of Renedy Singh’s deliveries made scoring easy for him. And why during Covid-19, he let his social media handles be used to amplify information you could use. While speaking about it, Chhetri didn’t forget to mention how Darren Caldeira, then a former player and now a part of Bengaluru FC, was working to help people looking for medicines, oxygen or an ambulance. “That boy is relentless,” he said.

In his book on Uttam Kumar, Sayandeb Chowdhury quotes the biggest star of Bengali cinema saying that he was neither a genius nor a fluke. “I have worked very hard. I took risks… I have heard some say, “the moment I saw him I knew a great actor had arrived.” I cannot but laugh.” Like Uttam’s early years, the first few years in Kolkata were unremarkable for Chhetri but even then he believed in a four-letter word: work.

It got him a career spread over three decades, one where has scored 94 goals in 150 games for India, putting him behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among active international players. “I know Sunil Chhetri, he has played in Portugal,” said Rui Bento, the Kuwait coach here on Wednesday. The stints in Portugal or Major League Soccer helped in the development of a player who has been named an icon by Asian Football Confederation.

Attitude has played a major part in that. Chhetri started on the bench in his first game for Bengaluru FC and didn’t complain. By then, he was a star. Just as Baichung Bhutia was when he reported late for an India camp, the first under Stephen Constantine. “I am really sorry, I am late. I’ll get changed straightaway,” Constantine has written in “From Delhi To The Den.” Baichung could have been difficult but he was a dream – on and off the field, Constantine wrote. There have been India coaches Chhetri hasn’t got on as well as he does with Igor Stimac and Bob Houghton, but no one would question his commitment. No wonder the baton passed so smoothly from Bhutia to him.

Chhetri’s attention to fitness is another reason for his longevity. “He is always switched on,” says Kunaal Majgaonkar, head of content and media at JSW Sport of which Bengaluru FC is a part. Majgaonkar knows Chhetri since they joined the club in 2013. He spoke of a holiday in Ooty where Chhetri would wake up at 5am and do push-ups.

Even when he is having fun, he will watch what he is eating, quietly tell you to not eat something you are craving for, said Majgaonkar. “He does treat everyone like they are part of his football teams. We are more careful about what we put on our plate.” And when he is really craving for a dessert, he will order one and pass it on to me. “He won’t touch it and tell me that we will eat them together once I am done. About time.”

But there are things he loves outside football. I remember calling him and being told that he was driving to Delhi from Kolkata. “If he says he will drop you, it is also because it will give him a few minutes at the wheel,” said Majgaonkar, accompanied by Kishore Kumar and songs from the 1990s. Kabini, around 200km from Bengaluru, is a getaway and Chhetri could now have a little more time in trying to spot the black panther that has eluded him so far. Talking about television serials from 1990s is another favourite pastime and he can watch endless reruns of ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’, said Majgaonkar. In that, Chhetri is not an exception.

Like teammate Anirudh Thapa, Chhetri has a reading habit. Possibly because he once said “PUBG is not my thing”. He is now reading Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie’s World”.

Having lived in Delhi and Kolkata and travelled to Phagwara, Goa, Lisbon and Kansas City for his career, Chhetri now calls Bengaluru home. “It is not as if he does not enjoy the adulation, but the city allows him to live a normal life,” said Majgaonkar. “He has friends with whom he cannot talk football.”

One final hurrah for India and he will be there with wife Sonam and son Dhruv. June 7 though, he has said, will be spent crying.

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