Footballer Sunil Chhetri's relationship with his wife seems to be straight out a novel. The well-known athlete who turns 36 on August 3 met Sonam Bhattacharya many years ago, when he was just starting out as a footballer.
"Her father was my coach, and he used to always specially mention this guy called ‘Chhetri’ to her. I was 18, and she was only 15. She was really curious about me so she stole my number for her dad’s phone and texted me," he told Humans of Bombay in 2019.
And while they did not know it yet, that first message where Sonam proclaimed that she was "a big fan" who wanted to meet him would be the beginning of a bond that has now lasted nearly two decades.
If you look at Chhetri's Instagram feed, you can see that he frequently posts about his wife, wishing her on her birthday and celebrating anniversaries.
"The picture isn't perfect, but my journey with you has been just that. Sixteen years to the day I met you and I can't thank you enough for braving it, stealing your dad's (and my coach's) phone and sending me that text," he wrote a few weeks ago, sharing a throwback image.
But at the time Chhetri had not known that he was texting his coach's daughter. Discovering that she was "really sweet and kind on text", the two had decided to meet up. It was then that the footballer realised that she was a tad bit younger than him.
"I told her, ‘You’re a kid, go study’ and walked off. But for some reason, we didn’t stop casually texting each other," he said.
Even then however, he did not know of Sonam's connection to his coach. It was only two months later when he was fixing his coach's phone after it had stopped working that he came across her number and recognised it. As he told Humans of Bombay, he was "livid".
"I immediately called her up told her that if the coach would find out that I was chatting with his daughter he would end my career! I vowed to cut all ties from her. She apologised for not telling the truth, but I wouldn’t have any of it. A couple of months passed by, and I just couldn’t get her out of my mind. I really enjoyed having her around. So I texted her and we started talking again," he said.
It was not easy for them. They had kept their bond under wraps and had to be careful when meeting. With Chhetri's career taking off he was also compelled to travel a fair amount. He recalls how he used to buy two movie tickets and keep one at the counter for Sonam when she entered 10 minutes later.
In a recent social media post he called Sonam the "love of my life, a friend, critic and my guide". Sonam, in an Instagram post, had more to say, "Right from the beginning, we wanted to help each other to be better human beings, and better versions of ourselves. We came with our flaws, but we wanted to work on them. This is a process that takes place even today. Every single time distance threatened to weaken our bond, we found more patience, calm and trust," she writes.
When they were both older, the two wanted to get married. And according to the remarks Chhetri made to Humans of Bombay, he was quite nervous.
"When we sat down, her dad started talking about everything under the sun. Until I finally mustered the courage and told him, ‘Sir, I love your daughter and I believe she loves me too’. He just said, ‘Ya, ya it’s okay’ and went to the bathroom. Finally when he came out, he gave his nod of approval! And in a few months, we got married," he was quoted as saying.
The two have been married for nearly three years now. And as Chhetri puts it, she has been with him throughout his journey -- from when he "was a nobody and had no money" to the time when he became the captain of the Indian Football team and through his wins, losses, highs and lows.