Many registered confused glances when the Indian national team performed a ‘Viking clap’ in front of a jam-packed Kolkata crowd after a draw against Bangladesh. It was hardly an achievement to be proud of. But the man leading the Viking clap knew that it was more than just about the result. Sunil Chhetri, indeed, knows best.
Before India won the Intercontinental Cup in 2018, Chhetri had made an emotional public appeal to the country. In an attempt to unite the nation for a sport other than cricket, he posted a video on social media that went viral.
In the video, he said: “To all of you, who support big European clubs and support ‘your’ European club with so much passion and sometimes you feel that ‘The level is not same and why waste your time?’ Agreed. The level is not the same, not even close but with our desire and determination, we will make sure and try our best to make your time worth.”
“To all of you, who have lost hope and do not have any hope in Indian football, I request you to come and watch us in the stadiums. It is not fun to criticise or abuse on the internet. Come to the stadium, do it on our face, scream at us, shout at us, abuse us and who knows, one day we might change you guys. You might start cheering for us.”
This sent shivers down the spines of many. When India did win the tournament some days later, the Viking clap followed. Led by Chhetri himself, it was a symbol moment. It was a sign of how this man from the streets of Secunderabad was trying to take Indian football into a new era- an era that promised to be better.
About a year and some months on, the draw against Bangladesh wasn’t a huge achievement. It wasn’t exactly what fans would call ‘progress’. But the Viking Clap that Chhetri lead said a lot about the spirit and fight. It was a sign that the show isn’t over yet.
For someone like Chhetri, it is far from. Not because of the love he has already expressed to bring Indian football out of tough times. But because of his own achievements.
Chhetri is currently world football’s second-highest international goalscorer among active players. As things stand, the 35-year-old has scored 72 goals for the country- only behind Cristiano Ronaldo but ahead of Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney.
In his 17-year-old professional career, Chhetri has bagged the I-League trophy as many as four times and won the new Indian Super League recently with Bengaluru FC earlier this year. He has helped the Indian national team win the Nehru Cup three times, leading them to the SAFF Championship title twice.
One pertinent question about the striker has always been about his time abroad. While the answer isn’t promising, but Chhetri has played for Sporting Lisbon B and shared a dressing room with Tottenham Hotspur star Eric Dier. Reports back in 2008 had linked Chhetri with a move to Leeds United, but nothing concrete came of it.
In 2009, Celtic were keen on Chhetri. They had sent scouts to watch him but the Scottish side never came back. The same year, Indian newspaper Hindustan Times had said that Chhetri had signed a three-year deal with Queens Park Rangers, but the move fell through due to work permit issues.
If not for stringent rules, Chhetri could well have played for a prominent European club. But as things stand, he continues to be a role model for Indian kids who want to become footballers in the future. The way he has united the nation could prove to be vital in the next few years. The impact will be felt decades after Chhetri retires.