SAFF Cup: 18-year-old Chhangte has potential to take over from Chhetri as India’s next football star

It was a watershed moment for Indian football when Bhaichung Bhutia, whom IM Vijayan famously called ‘God’s gift to Indian football’, donned that blue jersey a final time for a farewell match against Bayern Munich at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi. Among the huge crowd that had turned up to bid adieu India’s greatest footballing son, there was one person who had reigned in his emotions and posed a pragmatic question. There stood a guy in the stands with placard that simply said ‘who will replace Bhaichung?’
It’s not just the 40 goals Baichung scored for the Blue Tigers that made him irreplaceable. It was his aura, it was his mythic stature in Indian football. In a country where sports means cricket, Bhaichung was the one name every kid could take when asked about Indian football. He was synonymous with it. You can find someone who’ll score 40 international goals, maybe. But it is really hard to replace an icon. But someone did. His name is Sunil Chhetri.
But then, on Sunday night, when India took on Nepal for their final group A clash against Nepal in the ongoing SAFF Championships, Chhetri took a bit of a back seat. India saw an 18-year-old kid from Mizoram take the game in his own hands. Lallianzuala Chhangte, better known as Zuala, scored a wonder goal, one that even Lionel Messi would be proud of, and put in another one off his head on a magical night, sending India through to the semi-finals. Two nights ago against Sri Lanka, he had broken Baichung’s record to become the youngest player to have played for India. In his second game on Sunday, he broke another Bhaichung record to become the youngest goalscorer for the country.
Today, every kid in India knows Chhetri, the talismanic Indian captain — a phrase that is overused, but frankly, has no better substitute. Chhetri took up the mantle from Bhaichung. He had played with Bhaichung for a considerable amount of time, but since his retirement, Chhetri stepped up. He took the captain’s armband, took the goalscoring responsibility, and also became that household name, that hero that every sport needs to thrive in every corner of the world. And we do need footballing heroes in India.
Chhangte’s fairy tale brace made all the headlines on the night and made him an overnight sensation. But apart from a young talent, what we saw on the occasion was the future. Chhangte’s supreme confidence on the field made it look like he belonged there. And when Chhetri scored, it was Chhangte who jumped on him first — and Chhetri carried the kid on his back as he celebrated. A picture is worth a thousand words, indeed.
In a sense, it is apt. Eventually, Chhetri will have to pass on the mantle. He has been the torchbearer for Indian football for long. He is 31 now, and he is going strong. But India’s young brigade is knocking on the door. And Chhangte just broke down that door and stormed in.
While he is too young and it is too early to make any big claims, it is safe to say that India have found a diamond in the rough, one that must be nurtured, polished and protected. And the Indian team knows that. Head coach Stephen Constantine sought to downplay Chhangte, and justifiably so, in the post-match press conference.
“He did okay. There are talents like Chhangte all over this country. That’s why I wanted to start the scouting network. Lee Johnson and I scouted Zuala at the DSK Shivajians academy, who are doing a great job. You just have to look and you can only look if you’ve got people looking,” Constantine said.
Constantine has been driving the young brigade of Indian football. He had said he wanted to try out youngsters in SAFF. And true to his word, he has done that. Credit has to given to the head coach for having faith on these youngsters and giving them a chance to excel for their country. Against Nepal, Constantine handed Koushik Sarkar, an East Bengal centre-back, his debut for India — the 503rd player to have played for the senior team. It’s a young Indian team, and Chhangte is at the centre of the army that Constantine is talking about.
“The boy (Chhangte) has come and worked very hard, that’s why he is here. He did okay the other day, he did a little bit more than okay today. I’m happy for him, but he still has a long way to go, a lot to learn. People get transfixed and swayed by the two goals and think ‘fantastic’. The boy is on the right road, he needs to keep his feet on the ground, we will keep his feet on the ground,” said Constantine after the match.
These are words of wisdom coming from Constantine. Because suddenly, Chhangte will be in the spotlight. The press, the fans will chase him and make him the poster boy for Indian football. But through all that he must not lose sight of what he has to do. He needs an excellent support system to navigate through the massive wave of attention that’s about to hit him.
But the good thing is that he has to look no further. His idol, skipper Sunil Chhetri is the perfect man to follow. He must learn from him how to become a great footballer and how to be grounded while doing that. And maybe one day then, he too will be a household name.