An Indian team in blue making the nation proud on Asian soil is not a rare sight. Well, not in cricket. In most other team sports, India has not been able to perform as a nation, even on the continental stage.
Thus, when the final whistle blew at the Suzhou Olympic Stadium on Saturday, there was a good reason for fans back home in India to celebrate and feel proud. The Indian Football Team had held a much stronger Chinese side to a draw in front of a packed stadium, mostly red.
But there was something different as the teams walked out of the tunnel – the first person emerging in blue was not a diminutive talisman but a tall, bearded man.
Stephen Constantine, the Indian coach, had of course informed in advance that Sandesh Jhingan would be leading the Indian side in their Chinese sojourn but not seeing Sunil Chhetri with the captain's armband felt different, if not slightly strange.
The Bengaluru FC skipper is currently the joint second highest goal scorer among players that are still actively playing international football. Chhetri is only behind Portuguese striker, Cristiano Ronaldo and is tied with the great Lionel Messi on 65 goals.
In fact, amongst all active international players with at least 50 goals, he has the third highest goals per game ratio behind Neymar and Ali Ashfaq of Maldives.
Moreover, Chhetri has been in scintillating form since the beginning of last season when he led Bengaluru FC to the Super Cup summit after finishing runners-up in the fourth edition of the Indian Super League where his team finished comfortably on top at the end of the group stage.
Chhetri is also, by some distance, the most experienced player in the country playing in his 14th season in international football. Despite all these years, he has been extremely consistent and is unanimously celebrated as the country's best footballer.
Chhetri is also officially India's best player having won the Football Players Association of India's (FPAI) best player of the 2017-18 season and a record 5th AIFF player of the year, 2017.
Thus, before Constantine's announcement it was expected that he would lead the side he has always led, especially now in the home stretch to the AFC Asian Cup, 2019 – their toughest battle as a team, yet.
Reports now emerge that Chhetri might never captain the country again as he has fallen out with his national team coach. Chhetri, backed by a number of senior players, asked the All India Football Federation to appoint a new coach in place of Constantine, saying that they needed fresh ideas, according to The Times of India.
Constantine's jibe at the Indian U-17 team that played in the World Cup further escalated this rift. The 55-year-old coach commented about the team being "hyped" and that they "did not pull up any trees" which caused Chhetri and the other senior players to put more pressure on the AIFF. But the governing body refused to relent, stressing that the coach would continue till the Asian Cup in 2019.
Times of India reports that Sunil Chhetri wants Albert Roca, the former Bengaluru FC coach, to replace Constantine. Roca is highly regarded in India having taken Bengaluru FC to the final of the AFC Cup in 2016.
Roca's tactical flexibility set him apart from most of his compatriots on Indian soil and a prime example of the same came in the final of the Federation Cup in 2017 when he tactically outclassed a much stronger Mohun Bagan side. Albert Roca, who also led Bengaluru FC to the 2018 Super Cup title shares an extremely good connection with Chhetri as their football ideologies match very well.
A source close to Times of India was quoted saying, "The situation is such that both have no option but to work with each other. AIFF doesn't want to change the coach till the AFC Asian Cup because that would unsettle the team. On the other hand, Constantine cannot drop Chhetri because everyone in the team looks up to him and also because of the high work rate he pulls in all the time."
This clash has led to Constantine overlooking Chhetri as his captain and the coach even took an indirect shot towards his former skipper saying in the press conference before the China game, "I think the captain has to reflect the attitude of a coach. Sandesh is a fighter and a leader."
While it is no doubt that Sandesh Jhingan is a fighter and a leader, it is hardly believable that Chhetri is not. After all, it was Chhetri's plea to support the national team on social media in June that went viral and was shared by every top celebrity across all industries and sports that brought fans to the stadium in numbers to support India.
Chhetri, however, did not let this fiasco bother him as he put in a tireless performance against China on Saturday and India will be hoping that their favourite footballer can continue, into the AFC Asian Cup, the form that saw him almost singlehandedly win, for his nation, the Hero Intercontinental Cup.