With two steps and a swish of his foot, Sunil Chhetri walked back to the halfway line.
A din-deafening roar cut through the lashing rain as the packed Sree Kanteerava Stadium erupted, a plethora of hands and congratulatory hugs confirmed that he had completed his hat-trick against Pakistan in the SAFF Championships opener, but Chhetri was serene.
His biggest smile was reserved for his long-time team-mate and friend Udanta Singh when he scored the fourth goal to complete the scoreline.
Chhetri has mentioned that he is filled with joy every time he scores. That serenity, perhaps, is that of the surface of an ocean.
As he walked back to the halfway line, the sign above on the stands read “Immortal number 11.”
It had been 18 years and nine days since Chhetri made his international debut against the same opposition. He scored that day too, but that was in Quetta. This was at “home.”
For this is the stadium – more than any other – where Chhetri earned his immortality, one game at a time. It is the place he calls “The Fortress.” A city, he considers home and which adopted him as one of its own.
He has long romanticised the theatre at Kanteerava in conversations before. About the power, the magic it brings, and the big nights he has enjoyed here for Bengaluru FC and the National Team. He had once told me about the confidence he gains from “the rain just before kickoff, typical Bengaluru weather.”
On Wednesday, it felt like even the elements had conspired. The monsoon rains arrived just as the Indian team landed at Bengaluru. On Wednesday night, a drizzle started around kickoff.
Perhaps this is reading too much into things.
Looking for drama because there needs to be some for the story.
It could be.
Maybe it’s the fact that this was the first time India has played in Bengaluru in well over five years. Or that they were playing Pakistan. Or could it be that there is something more to it all?
Maybe it’s the weight of the numbers – the hat-trick bringing his international tally to 90 goals, going ahead of Malaysia’s Mokhtar Dahari to become the second-highest scoring Asian and fourth-highest overall in international football.
Or the love he receives – three pitch invaders looked for Chhetri, who appeared less than pleased.
Perhaps it’s the fact that we are seeing an all-time great – increasingly clearly the GOAT (at least of the modern era).
It could be the truth that he peaked in the second half of his career – a rarity and testament to the dedication and lifestyle changes Chhetri adopted (possibly his biggest contribution to Indian football).
Maybe it’s the realisation that the 38-year-old’s time on the field is winding down and there is a desire to enjoy and give back to a career that has given so much. There have been many that promised a lot, but almost none that over-delivered like Chhetri.
It is bitter because we know the end is near. It is also sweeter because we know the end is near. But not too near.
We will speak of that once I am done.
That was Chhetri’s response when asked about the hat-trick being a personal milestone.
The Asian Cup looms large. It is the biggest tournament for Indian Football. There are a few more competitions en route to it. This season will also be the 11th for the number 11 at Bengaluru FC.
So march the stadiums, thronging those drums and trumpets, for there is still much to enjoy from Chhetri. There are more mountains to conquer.