Sunil Chhetri's wife says as a fan, she wants him to continue playing

'It would make us happier to see him spend more time at home'

57-Sunil-Chhetri-with-his-wife-Sonam-Bhattacharya Home front: Sunil Chhetri with his wife, Sonam Bhattacharya (left), and mother after his retirement | Salil Bera


Let’s go home,” Sunil whispered in my ears after playing his last international match and crying his heart out at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata. Perhaps he knew that I, and all others in the family, wanted him to continue, but what would make us happier is to see him spend more time at home. We have not yet come to terms with the fact that Sunil Chhetri has retired from the Indian team.

A month ago, when he told us after meeting his grandmother that the June 6 match would be his last, we thought he was joking. I asked him if he wanted to wait for some more time; if India were to qualify for the third round, then matches would become tougher and the team would need him. He, however, convinced us that Indian football was now ready to go ahead without him.

As a fan, I wanted him to continue. As a wife, my heart swells with hope that he will now be able to spend more time with his family. Sunil, too, wishes the same for he has not spent much time with his parents and our son, Dhruv. I saw Sunil the happiest when our son was born, but he had to join the national team within 10 days. It is a small regret he carries, and now, I sense a determination in him to change that. Since he will continue with club football, his daily routine will largely remain the same. He will still continue with his fitness regime and strict diet. However, secretly, now I want him to get back to eating meat and other non-vegetarian dishes that he once loved because he will be playing less football. He was such a foodie before he started following a strict vegetarian diet. My mother, too, would love to cook for him his favourite mutton again.

But then this is how Sunil became the great footballer whom everyone knows today. After he was declared the national team captain in 2011, I saw him change as a person and as a footballer. The casual Sunil Chhetri transformed into a disciplined and authoritative figure, meticulously planning his days and strictly adhering to routines. His training methods underwent a dramatic shift, propelling his game to new heights. The boy who relished biryani before his international debut evolved into a man who embraced a vegetarian diet for faster injury recovery.

I can tell the world the path was not easy because I have been at his side since the beginning. We met for the first time in 2004 during his Mohun Bagan days. I told him I was his fan, hiding the fact that my father, Subrata Bhattacharya, was his coach. But funnily enough, I could not keep the truth from him for long. My dad’s mobile phone was damaged and somehow the responsibility to fix it fell on Sunil. My number was saved in my father’s mobile as Mem (my nickname). When I called dad one day, Sunil saw the number and got suspicious. He asked me, “Your name is Sonam, then who is Mem and why do both of you share the same number?” When I told him the truth, he avoided me for three months because of fear. He said, “My football career will be over.”

But things gradually changed and both of us fell in love. He moved to JCT and became a regular in the national team. As a result, we could only meet three or four times a year and had to rely on long-distance calls. But the anticipation of those calls and our rare meetings bridged our distances and deepened our love. When the time came to reveal our hearts to our families, Sunil handled everything. He met my dad and expressed our desire to be married. My dad, perhaps sensing destiny’s hand, did not object and we exchanged vows in 2017.

Sunil has always been like this. He embraced challenges. Despite countless hardships throughout his career, I still cannot tell the world what has been his most difficult moment. He never behaved as if something was bothering him till the final whistle on June 6. I did not expect him to break down and cry like he did. Ending his national career was probably the most difficult moment of his life. It made all of us emotional, but I found solace in his tears. He felt relieved, shedding the weight that he had been carrying since announcing his retirement a month ago. He shattered the stigma that disciplined and strong men do not cry. Perhaps they should, for it makes them undeniably human.

Sonam is Sunil Chhetri’s wife.

As told to Niladry Sarkar.