After legendary Bhaichung Bhutia was dropped in the 2011 Asian Cup, coach Bob Houghton elevated Chhetri to captaincy to lead a young side to the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers in Malaysia two months later.
“The day I was given the armband was in Malaysia by Bob Houghton, there was instant pressure because of who I was – a backbench MP,” Chhetri said in an episode of “Let There Be Sports” streaming on Disney Plus Hotstar.
“Myself, Steven (Dias) and (NP) Pradeep made fun of the senior players, it was me. Everything was a prank and I was mischievous.
“But when I wore the armband, for the first three or four games, I started staying ahead,” added the 38-year-old, whose last major tournament for India could be the FIFA Cup. Asia 2024 in Doha.
“It was me taking the pressure to become captain now. It’s not those things, but doing what you did before and being a bit more thoughtful. It’s not just you, it’s the team now,” he added.
Senior players like renedy singh, Climax Lawrence And Mahesh Gawli played their last matches in India at the end of 2011.
Chhetri made his international debut for India in 2005 in a friendly match against Pakistan in Quetta. He scored on his debut in a 1-1 draw. Sukhwinder Singh was then the coach of the Indian team.
Chhetri said he changed his approach to the game after taking charge as captain because he had to lead the team by example.
“Before, there was this mindset that I am Sunil Chhetri – my dribble, my pass, my cross, my goal. I would put my hands up and go home. Even if I was mistreated, I took them and I was going home.
“But now you also think of yourself, but also of the team on and off the pitch.
“And when I forced myself to think that way earlier, I got scared. I told myself to relax, the job is still the same. Be a good example on the pitch and off the pitch,” he explained.
Chhetri, the third most prolific goalscorer among active international players with goals only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, said he was keen to take responsibility for the team’s failures.
“Most importantly, when there is a mistake, raise your hand and apologize. Because when responsibility comes and you become a senior player, it becomes harder to say it was my mistake.
“That’s what I learned when I became leader, that it’s okay, you’re going to be wrong. All the greats have done it. And when the captain stands up and takes the blame, it’s all morale (of the dressing room) changes,” he added.
The veteran striker, who currently plays for Bengaluru FC in the Premier League Indian Super Leaguewon several titles and accolades during his professional career, but revealed that defeats taught him to keep his feet on the ground.
“It’s a blessing to be Sunil Chhetri, quite honestly. But taking losses in life is something that sport teaches you and that’s what I take away from football. Once in a while, even now, when I am who I am, a phase or a loss will come that will tell you that you are nothing,” he said.