Chhetri a friend, brother, mentor to all of us, says Rahul Bheke

BHUBANESWAR: Rahul Bheke is the senior most player in the Blue Tigers camp after Sunil Chhetri. The 33-year-old made his India debut five years ago and has since been a regular member of the national team camp, converting into one of the leaders in the squad. He is one of those names who’ve gotten better with experience, ageing like fine wine and winning titles for club and country.

The versatile defender spoke to the-aiff.com about his half-a-decade-long national team journey until now. “Getting my first opportunity in 2019 was a dream come true for me. Ever since I joined the national team, I have learned so many things from my colleagues, teammates, and coaches and I still do every day. It’s been a learning experience, and training every day and playing international games has helped me to grow as a player,” said Bheke.

While he couldn’t zero in on one particular moment as his best in the India jersey, Bheke revealed a few special games. “My best moments have been when I got my first call-up for the King’s Cup (in Thailand) and made my debut against Curacao, and when I scored my first goal against Bahrain. I can also add the AFC Asian Cup experience. I played all three games, so it was a big thing for me.”

Bheke has built a special relationship with Chhetri, which also spanned at the club level after spending four years at Bengaluru FC between 2017 and 2021. Opening up about his bond with the Indian captain, Bheke said, “I still remember the first day I met him. We were in Mumbai I think back in 2016-17, and played a five-a-side game. From that day till today, it’s been a great journey for us. We have shared countless victories and unforgettable memories. He’s been an inspiration to all of us. He was the first person to give me a call when I got called for the national camp for the first time. I’m so happy to have shared the pitch with him and I just want to thank him for all the memories and the lessons he has given to all the players and for being an inspiration to the whole nation.”

And it’s not just inside the green pitch where the bond blooms. Chhetri has been a friend, brother, and mentor for not just Bheke but everyone who is part of the national camp.

“Yes, we share a lot of things off the field,” revealed Bheke. “We spend a lot of time together. Sometimes, we go out together. He talks to not just me but all the players about off-the-pitch stuff, things about life, what mistakes he’s done and what he’s learned. He guides players about their football careers. His relationship with me has always been very good. Whether in the national camp or in the club. So he is, you know, like a big brother.”

In this brotherhood, Bheke has also inculcated Chhetri’s leadership skills. It’s fair to say that when Chhetri hangs up his India boots after June 6, new youngsters would look up to leaders like Bheke in the national team. As captain of Mumbai City FC, Bheke is no stranger to leading the lines and taking the reins for his team. Less than three weeks ago, he lifted the Indian Super League Cup title for his club in Kolkata, at the very same pitch India will face Kuwait in the must-win FIFA World Cup Qualifiers game.

“We have a big stage right in front of us, so I hope we do well and qualify for the next round, which will be a great achievement for the country. We’re positive. The way the camp is going on, the way everyone is training, I can see that there is a positive atmosphere in the team. Everyone is looking forward to that game. We’re all working on ourselves and getting better in shape,” said Bheke.

The Mumbai-born defender also shared what it meant for him to lift the ISL trophy wearing the captain’s armband.

“Winning the ISL Cup this time was a totally different feeling as a captain. I won it with Bengaluru FC in 2019, but I was not a senior player or a leader of the team. We had many leaders and captains in that squad.

“This time, I was the captain of my home team. And lifting the trophy for my hometown club was a proud moment for me, for my family, for my friends who were there in Mumbai. I lifted the trophy for my people. It was a very emotional moment for me. I felt good that I gave my home team something in return.”

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