Talismanic Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri was on Friday named an ‘Asian Icon’ by the game’s continental governing body on his 34th birthday and received effusive praise for rivalling the world’s greatest players of his generation in scoring goals.
Chhetri is currently the highest goal-scoring active Asian player with 64 strikes from 101 matches and third in the world after superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) made his birthday a memorable one by presenting, on its official page, a throwback of his life and career and the best moments on the field, when he played for India and his clubs, beginning from 2005 in a match against Pakistan.
“In the era of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, to be the third highest scoring international footballer in the world is no mean feat, and for an Asian player to be within one goal of Messi’s 65 goals for a national team is a record our latest inductee to the ‘Asian Icons’ list should be proud of,” the AFC wrote.
“As he turns 34 today, we celebrate the career of Sunil Chhetri, India’s most capped player and all-time top goal scorer.”
Describing Chhetri as one of Asia’s greatest footballers, the AFC said, “In a cricket-mad nation, Chhetri was raised in a footballing family, where his father represented the Indian Army team while his mother and aunt were international footballers for Nepal.”
“Chhetri caught the football fever, but never imagined how far he would go. Little did the India captain know he would go on to surpass a century of caps and score 21 more international goals since 2015 to rival the world’s greatest players of the generation and lead his nation to a fourth AFC Asian Cup in their history with four goals in the qualifiers,” the AFC said.
The AFC said even at 34, “Chhetri is showing no signs of slowing down, recently signing a new contract that will keep him at Bengaluru FC until 2021. January’s AFC Asian Cup in the UAE is the next stop for Chhetri who is looking forward to rubbing shoulders with Asia’s finest once more.
“A journey that would take Chhetri to become one of Indian and Asian footballs greats started when he signed for Mohun Bagan in 2002.”
Chhetri has played for eight Indian clubs in the domestic top-flight. Beginning from Mohun Bagan, he has played for JCT, East Bengal, Dempo, Chirag United, Churchill Brothers, Mumbai City and Bengaluru FC.
He had stints at Kansas City Wizards at the Major League Soccer in the United States and Sporting CP in Portugal.
He has won the AFC Challenge Cup (2008), SAFF Cup (2011, 2016) and I-League (2010, 2013, 2014, 2016). His birthday is celebrated as Football Delhi Day by the state body of the game in Delhi where he now resides.
Chhetri played his 100th international match for India against Kenya in June during the four-nation Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai.
After India’s first match during that tournament, he made an unprecedented appeal to the country’s sports fans to turn up in numbers and support the national football team through a video on his Twitter handle.
Chhetri began his international career with a bang as he marked his debut (against Pakistan) with a goal he cherished to this day.
“That goal always comes to my mind when asked about my favourite goal,” he reminisced.
“It was against Pakistan, in Pakistan, and I was 19 or 20, and on my debut. It will always be special to me. There are a few great moments that also spring to mind but the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup when I scored a hat-trick against Tajikistan in the final (to progress to 2011 AFC Asian Cup) was very sweet.”