Indian football icon Sunil Chhetri was conferred the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in the country, by the Indian government on the eve of Republic Day.
The decoration comes after years of inexplicable, top-quality footballing service delivered by the 34-year-old on the national and international stage, leading to worldwide recognition for both himself and the country.
The awards are given in various disciplines/ fields of activities viz – art, social work, public affairs, science and engineering, trade and industry, medicine, literature and education, sports, civil service etc. Chhetri was one among the 94 individuals to have been awarded the Padma Shri.
In the past few years, the Bengaluru FC forward has taken his game to the next level both on and off the pitch. Chhetri’s leadership qualities helped the Blue Tigers hit new heights and make steady progress in the FIFA rankings.
The 34-year-old recently surpassed Lionel Messi as the second-highest active international goal-scorer with 67 strikes for the Blue Tigers. The Secunderabad-born star was one of the standout performers for India at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup where he scored two goals in three matches. In fact, he is the highest scoring Indian in the competition with four strikes to his name in the two editions he’s played.
Chhetri made his international debut in 2005 against arch-rivals Pakistan and found the back of the net in the same match. His first major tournament was the 2007 Nehru Cup which India went on to win. The striker contributed with four goals while playing a key part in the final against Syria.
Following those heroics, Chhetri played another instrumental role as India clinched the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008, which helped them qualify for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. Scoring four goals including a hat-trick in the final, Chhetri became the new go-to man for the country with Bhaichung Bhutia nearing his retirement.
The striker’s impact in India’s 2009 Nehru Cup wasn’t as definitive as he would have wanted due to an injury, but he made up for it at the 2011 SAFF Championship, scoring crucial goals in India’s march to the trophy. Chhetri’s other honours include the 2012 Nehru Cup winners medal and the 2018 Hero Intercontinental Cup win.
Meanwhile, in the context of the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL), Chhetri is the highest-scoring Indian in the history of the tournament. After his fine performances in the 2017-18 campaign, Chhetri was awarded the Hero of the Season award. Given his unrelenting thirst for excellence, we can only expect Chhetri to go from strength to strength as he reached the twilight of his career.