When Sunil Chhetri made his India debut in a friendly against Pakistan in Quetta on June 12, 2005, his father Kharga wasn't as anxious about his potential football skills, as much as the security arrangements that were made for the Indian team in Balochistan.
Chhetri was, in fact, on his second trip to Pakistan in a little more than a year. He had been part of the U-20 team that won silver at the 2004 SAF Games in Pakistan, and had already made his debut in a 2-0 win against Afghanistan in Islamabad. He had also scored twice in the 4-1 semifinal win against Bhutan.
"My son was about to put on the Indian jersey. I was lamenting not being able to go there," his father tells ESPN. "He was very excited. I used to tell him, 'Don't go outside'. But he assured us that there was adequate security that would escort them everywhere. Moreover, the people were friendly. That was a little bit of assurance those days." In fact, the Indian cricket team had gone to Pakistan for their first full tour in 15 years in 2004, and the two nations were exchanging tours on a regular basis till 2007.
Chhetri's father, himself a keen footballer in his younger days, puts the AFC Challenge Cup final win in New Delhi in 2008 among his favourite memories of seeing his son in action. "I actually watched that semifinal against Myanmar, and the ball which was headed by Bhaichung [Bhutia] and Sunil had scored with two-three stitches on his eyebrow. He got badly injured," he recalls, adding how inclement weather forced the final against Tajikistan to be shifted to New Delhi's Ambedkar Stadium.
"He wanted a particular Nike boot for that match, and I was just getting that ready. Those years, he was not allowed to come home, because they would go to the hotel and then to the Ambedkar Stadium. That match was really exciting. First international hat trick for Sunil. The way he was elated, the celebrations -- it's just always there in our eyes."
Kharga Chhetri credits former India coach Bob Houghton, under whose reign India qualified for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup on the back of the AFC Challenge Cup win, for moulding Chhetri's game into the methodical process it is today. "When he was 10-11, he used to dribble past players and score. That kind of craziness was put to a halt by Bob Houghton," he says. "He was the man who controlled his impulse to dribble past several players. Thereafter, he has been learning everyday."
From a young man who was still 20 when he first played for India, to the holder of the national records for both international caps (115) as well as goals (72), it has been a long journey for Sunil Chhetri, and an equally surreal one for his parents, who were his first inspirations behind taking up the sport.
"We never thought, when he was playing for JCT, Mohun Bagan or in the I-League, that he would create records for himself and for the country," says Kharga. "As a father, it's always exciting. I easily tell myself and other people that I had some dreams when I was young. Sunil has helped me achieve all of them, and so much more."