Sunil Chhetri : Podium ... not pedestal

Sunil ChhetriLast month, Chhetri pipped his idol to become the country’s top goal-scorer against Nepal.

Old-timers from the maidans of Kolkata claim they had prophesised that Sunil Chhetri would make it big the moment they set eyes on that boy with twinkle toes and a bobbing head.

It was in 2002, much before he would reach the top echelons of Indian football. But at first, holding him up to the highest standards, Kolkata's football faithful would spit out their reservations about the new kid on the block and mock him. "Who is this kid from Delhi — do they even play football there?," they'd question, a tad harshly. "And why is he trying so hard to be like Baichung — our Baichung?"

Every pretender needed to match up to Baichung first, before he was permitted to build an identity of his own.

But then, soon enough, they were blown away by Chhetri's skills. Donning the famous maroon-green Mohun Bagan shirt, this tiny young striker pulled off a 'Baichung', scoring from an acute angle against Churchill Brothers in a National Football League (now I-League) match. The terraces went berserk; 'Chota Baichung' had arrived. Though bestowed impulsively, it was an apt nickname, and it stuck.

There was a hint of Bhutia in everything Chhetri did, or tried to do: be it in training or on the field; the manner in which he scored goals or the celebrations that followed. "He was in awe of Baichung, who was also in the same side. But he had his head in the right place. He was a keen learner and the moment he scored his first goal, we knew he would score many more," says former East Bengal and Mohun Bagan coach Subhas Bhowmick.

Last month, Chhetri pipped his idol to become the country's top goal-scorer against Nepal. Since making his debut in 2005 and scoring his first goal against Pakistan the same year, the 29-year-old has found the back of the net 42 times. It's a staggering record, one which gains more prominence when you look at the other names on the list. Bhutia: 42 goals in 107 matches. IM Vijayan: 40 in 79 matches. Chhetri has not only out-scored the two Indian legends but has done so at a better goal-scoring rate — 43 goals in just 80 matches. On Friday, he was named the Player of the Year by the AIFF for the third time, equalling Vijayan's record and surpassing Bhutia, who else?

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