Sunil Chhetri is arguably India's best striker, possibly even footballer, at present. How does he match up with Bhaichung Bhutia and IM Vijayan, two of the other modern greats? There are numbers, of course, but they only tell part of the story.
ESPN reached out to four of their contemporaries -- Subhas Bhowmick and Shabbir Ali, who coached all three or managed teams against them in domestic football, and midfielder Noel Wilson and current national teams' director Abhishek Yadav, who have played with all three for India and in domestic competition. We asked them to grade the three on four parameters that define a good striker, and Vijayan finished on top.
For younger Indian fans, Vijayan might have been somebody they have read or heard about but not seen. His career (1987 to 2006), especially its peak, was before the era of football being broadcast nationwide. Bhutia and Chhetri, who both played abroad, had a far higher profile off the field.
Vijayan though was in a different class as a player, judging by his contemporaries' assessment of him, and one wonders how his legend might have fared in the era of social media. This video helps you compare Vijayan with the early years of Bhutia through the first four and a half minutes, including a short clip of Bhutia dribbling past a young Wes Brown in a reserves match in England.
First, the raw numbers
When Vijayan retired from international football soon after the Afro-Asian Games of 2003-04, he held the Indian record with 39 goals. It was a mark that Bhutia would improve to 42 before his last India game in 2011 and that has since been surpassed by Chhetri, who has 72 goals from 115 matches. Their strike rate: Bhutia, 0.39 goals a game, Vijayan, 0.44 and Chhetri, 0.63.
Chhetri's numbers by themselves are impressive enough, and then he has three international hat-tricks -- Vijayan, Shabbir Ali and Bhowmick are three of only eight others who have hat-tricks for India in football, none more than one.
Bhutia has the best win percentage, with 49 wins off 107 matches. Chhetri has had 51 wins off 115, while Vijayan was on the winning team 30 times in 88 appearances for India.
Bhutia's career overlapped with Vijayan first and then Chhetri. But Vijayan and Chhetri never got the opportunity to play for India together.
These are just numbers, though, and don't include the context -- how many goals came against higher-ranked opposition, or the importance of games they were scored in. So, what are the four parameters we evaluated them on? (We asked the experts to rank the players on each quality, and assigned points accordingly. Where they failed to separate the players, the points were split equally among all three.)
(1 Vijayan, 2 Bhutia, 3 Chhetri)
Noel Wilson (NW): I would call him [Vijayan] a total striker. He was not just a guy who scored goals, but he was also a player who could effortlessly drop to midfield, and would also come to defend. It's not necessary that he would score from inside the 18 yards -- he scored so many goals from outside the area. Basically, he was a total footballer, and he could score from anywhere.
Subhas Bhowmick (SB): Bhaichung, I personally think, was his generation's idol. He was not a raw talent particularly, but he had an uncanny ability to come up with goals. He was a poacher. He knew when to rise to the occasion. If IM could have understood this point, he would be in the league of all-time greats of the game.
Shabbir Ali (SA): Bhaichung and Vijayan would come first, especially Vijayan. Chhetri would be third.
Abhishek Yadav (AY): Honestly, it has been an absolute privilege to play with all of them. Watching Vijayan in action was a delight. Bhaichung and Sunil on the pitch have the capability to inspire the full squad and are born leaders.
(1 Vijayan = Bhaichung, 3 Chhetri)
NW: If the chance was there, he [Bhutia] was very good with his agility and speed. He was more dangerous and effective inside the 18 yards. Bhaichung wasn't scared of putting in slides and dives when faced with a 50-50 opportunity.
SB: IM Vijayan, one. Followed by Bhaichung and Sunil.
SA: When Bhaichung came into the picture, Vijayan was already a very experienced player. Bhaichung himself used to say that he was a huge fan of Vijayan. But after 1995 or so, he became a really serious player, a thorough professional, and then he really established himself. The way Chhetri has done now.
AY: It will be unfair for me to rank them, as all three are extremely talented and successful professionals.
(1 Vijayan = Bhaichung = Chhetri)
NW: They were all so good in finishing, that's why they got so many goals. I think Vijayan is the best, because he had an amazing touch. If Bhaichung had the ball in midfield, he would not try to dribble you. He would receive it, and try to play it to the wings, because he knew from there the cross would come into the 18 yards. That was Bhaichung's style of play. He was not in the Vijayan mould -- dribble players, take them on, feint and go. Vijayan was the cleverest player out of them all. He knew when to release the ball, when to go, and when to surprise the goalkeeper and defence. He wasn't as dependent on receiving the ball inside the 18-yard box. Chhetri is good because he gets very good ball supply from the wings. He's at the right place at the right time, which is a great attribute. He gets his goals.
SB: Sunil. I would put Bhaichung at two and Vijayan third.
SA: Of course, [the best was] sometimes Bhaichung and sometimes Vijayan, but Vijayan was really good. Now Chhetri has also come into his own.
AY: It's been pleasing to watch Sunil play and grow over the years as one of the best that India has produced.
Overall contribution to the team
(1 Chhetri, 2 Bhaichung = Vijayan)
NW: Vijayan is one, Chhetri at two, and Bhaichung is three.
SB: We talk of this term 'professionalism' to the point that it has become clichéd, but Sunil was the complete professional when he returned from Portugal. Now I know if anyone asks Sunil, if they offer him anything at the wrong time, [he will refuse]. He has his routine chalked out -- he knows when to have his food, when to have his energy drinks, and when to have his snacks.
[When Vijayan first came to Mohun Bagan in 1991], he was the kind of talent that nobody could even dream of having. However, he was a talent with a flaw. The next time I got Vijayan [with East Bengal in 2001-02], he was very difficult to coach. That is one of my big regrets in my life -- that I did not get Vijayan as a coach when I had matured. In 2001, he had become badmaash (hard to control/mischievous). If he had the discipline and dedication that Sunil and Bhaichung had, then Vijayan could have made history in Indian football.
SA: Basically, a striker has to be an opportunist. You need to be good in the air, and have the ability to be at the right place [at the right time]. He should be a risk-taker, and he has to be quick, because goals are scored in that extra fraction of a second. He has to see the flow of the game -- sometimes he has to pass and not score. Chhetri is excellent in these aspects.
AY: Bhaichung and Vijayan were my seniors and I always looked up to them with a lot of respect. Sunil was my junior and was the live wire in the squad -- keeping everyone together -- something he still does.
1. IM Vijayan (50 points)
2. Bhaichung Bhutia (48 points)
3. Sunil Chhetri (46 points)
(Stats courtesy Gautam Roy)