A timeless classic that goes by the name Sunil Chhetri
They should make a sequel to the Benjamin Button film with Chhetri as the protagonist
A journalist, a tourist and a young fan walk into a bar. No, this isn't the start of those cliched jokes. All three are, in fact, bound by a spell that struck them at the same time earlier that evening. An occurrence, that by the virtue of logic and probability, should be less frequent in 2020, but continues to be the anomaly that drives Indian football.
83" Bengaluru FC vs FC Goa
"Chhetri is going for the goal. Chhetri is going for the goal. Chhetri is getting the goal," screams the commentator.
At the stadium, it is near delirium. Everyone asks each other, "How does he keep doing it?"
"Wow. They say there is an over reliance on Sunil Chhetri. And I can tell you there is. But when you can do this time and time and time again, it is no wonder he has got the name 'Captain, Leader, Legend'," says the co-commentator.
On the ground, Chhetri runs to his team-mate. The 22-year-old Ashique Kuruniyan had fallen prey to muscle cramps. The 35-year-old Sunil Chhetri, who had sprinted some 80 yards to score the goal, gives him a hug.
At the bar, the Fan initiates the conversation.
"I can't understand how he keeps doing it," he says.
His friends know what he is talking about. They nod in agreement.
How Sunil Chhetri continues to set the benchmark for Indian football is a question that will perhaps never be answered. One of those phenomenons that go unexplained. Not that anyone is complaining.
The Tourist, who was watching a match in Bengaluru for the first time, was equally surprised by the crowd's reactions.
"Didn't expect them to this noisy," he says. Again, the others nod in unison. The West Block Blues, small as they have been in numbers, had gone berserk on the night. Understandably, considering their favourite team had made a comeback victory against table-toppers FC Goa to win 2-1. An New Year's gift neatly packaged with a personal note from Chhetri.
A brace from India's arguably greatest ever footballer saw Bengaluru FC through that night. But what made it even more special was how Chhetri delivered when there was pressure on him to deliver. Unlike BFC's previous two seasons in the Indian Super League, where they were head and shoulders above the others in the competition (despite Chennaiyin FC winning one), the 2019-20 season had exposed a few chinks in the Bengaluru armour. Their attack, without the services of Miku, had looked blunt. And with new-recruit Manuel Onwu struggling, the champions were overly reliant on an ageing Chhetri for the goals.
"A peg," says the Journalist, breaking his silence.
"What?" the others asked.
In surroundings where the word can have multiple meanings, it was understandable why the others wanted to clarify.
"For a story," he clarifies. The nods are in sync again.
"I'm sure a lot of people who cover football extensively in this country will agree. Many a times we are clutching straws with our reports. Anything that is not mediocre often becomes news for us," he explains.
Football, despite having clubs more than a century old, is still a 'developing' sport in the country. Greatness, he says, is hard to come by. And in a country as big as India, even more difficult to catch live in a stadium.
"When Chhetri plays, he is the peg in our stories. He is the one who frequently produces magic. What you would call the 'spark'. That bit of something special that makes an athlete 'great'. That greatness that makes our jobs satisfying," he says.
"A spark that our peers covering cricket take for granted. Take the last two decades. Sachin, Dravid, Dhoni, Rohit, Kohli... And what about football? Who did we have who were truly world class?"
The others agree. There is a brief period of silence.
Sunil Chhetri has been doing this for almost 19 years now. And is not showing any signs of stopping. Some would argue he is getting better. What is he has lost in pace, he has made up with his understanding of the game. The captain remains the fulcrum for his club and country.
"They should make a sequel to the Benjamin Button film with Chhetri as the protagonist," says the Tourist. He goes on to explain how the Brad Pitt character grew younger with time in the film. But the others already knew the film. "I wish he can go on till like 50, he adds.
Visibly, Chhetri wasn't getting younger though. There are more falls-on-to-the-knees-with-hands-cover-the-face after he misses a chance or his teammate fails to deliver.
"There is this myth in Turin," says the Journalist. "That they had invented some method to prolong the career. Something scientific but something they want to keep hidden from the world. Look at how Pirlo, Evra, Chiellini, Barzagli...Even Ronaldo...."
They sit there pondering over the possiblity of that secret. Something that would straight into a superhero film with mutants.
"A timeless classic," says the Fan, partly afraid he wasn't contributing enough to the conversation. He was, by his own description, a fan of the team Chhetri's men had defeated. Yet, here he was, in a bar, still in awe of what he had witnessed at the Kanteerava.
But the others agreed. A 'timeless classic' best described Chhetri.
Ever reliable. Consistent. Transcending time.
They had found a closure to the conversation. They went back to re-living the moments from the football match in their heads. Like a timeless classic.
The author doesn't claim all the incidents at the bar to be true. He calls it a 'blurry' memory. The editorial desk believes the Tourist, the Fan and the Journalist are actually multiple personalities of the same person. We promise to update you on that once we have clarity.
Alcohol consumption is injurious to health.