On Sunday, an entire nation erupted in joy as India won the 2018 Hero Intercontinental Cup, powered by the goals of their dynamic skipper, Sunil Chhetri.
The 33-year-old forward, who recently bought up a century of caps, was on song, as he so often has been for India, as the Blue Tigers edged a fancied Kenya side 2-0 in Mumbai.
It was a double delight in every sense of the word for Indian fans as Chhetri also drew level with global superstar Lionel Messi on the all-time international scoring charts (active players) with his strike in the final.
Here are the five major milestones of the man who has inspired an entire generation to take up the beautiful game as a career:
2005-06: Breakthrough season with JCT and India debut
Chhetri had shown flashes of his talent during his three seasons with Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan, but the jury was still out on him when JCT snapped him up in 2005.
The shift to Punjab suited the diminutive striker as he blossomed with the Millmen and wouldn’t ever look back as he went from talented prospect to household name in the span of three campaigns.
It was also the year he made his debut for the senior Indian national side and even managed to get his account running against eternal rivals Pakistan no less.
2007: Maiden title with Blue Tigers
Banging in the goals in friendlies and tri-nation tournaments is all well and good, but your true worth shines through when you’re able to find the back of the net in a major competition.
The 2007 Nehru Cup win gave Indian football a brief fillip and Chhetri, along with the evergreen Bhaichung Bhutia, was leading the nation’s charge.
In the group stages, Syria had the beating of India, but the Blue Tigers turned the tables when it matter most, in the final.
Interest from abroad was circling since the turn of the year, but the Delhi boy proved that when it came to representing his country, it was all tunnel vision.
2011: SAFF Championship title and brave AFC Asian Cup display
Then came the biggie, the Asian Cup and while India were never even contenders, they were expected to make a fight of it.
Sadly, that never happened as the ‘Sleeping Giant’ lost all its games, with a hefty margin to boot, as Chhetri and Co crashed out in the group stages.
Still, it could have been a lot worse, for if not for Chhetri’s goals, some of the scorelines would have been downright embarrassing.
If the start of the year began on an underwhelming note, the Blue Tigers definitely more than made up for it towards the close.
With Bhaichung effectively on his last legs, the onus was on Chhetri to fire the Indian side to the SAFF Championship and that’s exactly what he did, with a goal in every match.
Yes, from all three group stage ties, to the semis to the final against Sri Lanka, India’s No.11 found the back of the net with such alacrity that it was almost a foregone conclusion that the title would be India’s.
2013: Love affair with Bangalore FC begins
After an underwhelming stint with Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon, Chhetri had returned home with his reputation dented a fair bit.
He had barely got any minutes with their reserve side, which lead many to prematurely claim that India’s top marksman was a has-been.
All those critics were forced to eat humble pie as the newly-formed Bengaluru FC took a chance on the Indian skipper and the rest is history.
Truth be told, both parties took a chance on the other and boy are we glad, for the Blues have emerged as the dominant force in Indian football ever since,
Chhetti’s 14 goals in his debut season (2013-14) with Benglauru FC were enough to power them to their maiden I-League title.
Not a bad way to start and five years on, Chettri and BFC are still in love with one another.
2018: Centurion and level with Lionel Messi on scoring charts
India haven’t been a true footballing powerhouse in decades, but competition for the national team remains immense.
And the fact that Chhetri could, at the age of 33, complete a century of international caps is truly a noteworthy achievement.
Throw in 64 goals and you’ve got a bonafide legend.
And while most mortals can only be in awe when they think of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the Indian skipper is rubbing shoulders with them.
Chhetri is, after his strikes in the Argentina and Barcelona superstar is level on goals and while the phenomenon that is Messi is likely to pull head in the near future, it is indeed a moment to savour for all Indian football fans.
Realistically speaking, India is not likely to qualify for the World Cup in the next two decades but one of our own has given us a glimmer that perhaps, just perhaps, the dream isn’t so incredulous after all.
Did we add that India just won the 2018 Intercontinental Cup without breaking a sweat thanks to the prolific No.11’s goals?