Indian football team assistant coach Shanmugam Venkatesh on Saturday said he saw in the talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri the qualities of a special player from the beginning of his career.

From being captain to teammate to rival and now assistant coach, Venkatesh has played a multitude of roles in Chhetri’s professional career. It was under Venkatesh’s captaincy that Chhetri began his international career in March 2004 for the U-20 team. India defeated hosts Pakistan 10 in the SAF Games in that match.

“I remember we were missing a number of regular players for the series, and it paved the way for a talented Sunil Chhetri to get picked. We were playing in Pakistan, and that was an added pressure on everyone. I remember Sunil being tremendous on his debut. He even scored, and it was an indicator for things to come,” Venkatesh said.

“Sunil played under my captainship, and we could see from the start that he had the potential to be a special player,” he added.

Venkatesh said Chhetri’s career changed with he joined the JCT Phagwara.

“Sunil was mentally very strong right from the start. The turning point for him, I feel, came for him when he moved to JCT. His performances sent across the message that he was ready for the national team. There was intense competition for places in the Indian side. But he proved his worth and became a regular.”

“As a captain and teammate I travelled with him for 4-5 years. The younger faces in the team — the likes of him, and Steven Dias were extremely naughty characters in the dressing room. He was such a chirpy guy. We used to have a lot of fun. But he was utmost serious when it came to his work,” Venkatesh was quoted as saying by a release from the AIFF.

Venkatesh said in the last four years as the national team assistant coach he has seen an entirely different Chhetri.

“When we played together, the routines were different. He has great knowledge of the game and I have always respected his opinions. After becoming coach, I have noticed his seriousness and concentration levels. It’s very easy to lose concentration in the middle of a camp. But I have never seen this happen even once with Sunil.

“He has maintained himself very well and he is careful at every step right from eating right things, taking adequate rest, taking care of his equipment. It is the little things that matter and other players also follow him. He keeps himself updated with the latest happenings and makes the most of them,” he added.