Sunil Chhetri: ‘Irreplaceable’ Indian football star finally calls it a day

Published : May 17, 2024 18:46 IST - 6 MINS READ

Sunil Chettri during a training session in Bengaluru in February 2019. The star footballer announced his retirement from international football on May 16, 2024.

Sunil Chettri during a training session in Bengaluru in February 2019. The star footballer announced his retirement from international football on May 16, 2024. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Chhetri, who carried Indian football on his back for 19 years, will play his final international game for the Blue Tigers against Kuwait on June 6.

Star footballer Sunil Chhetri announced his decision to retire from international football after the FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Kuwait on June 6, bringing the curtains down on a career that is unparalleled in Indian football for its longevity and consistency.

The long-serving national team captain announced his decision on May 16 via a video he posted on his social media accounts. “It was not that I was feeling tired,” Chhetri said in the video. “When the instinct came this should be my last game, I thought about it a lot and eventually I came to this decision.”

Chhetri, who debuted in 2005 against Pakistan, has been the face of Indian football for nearly a decade and a half. He has scored 94 international goals for India, making him the third-highest active international goalscorer after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and the fourth all-time international goalscorer.

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Chhetri is also India’s most-capped player having played 150 international matches since his debut. The 39-year-old football star will walk into international sunset after rendering yeoman service for 19 years to his team. “The match against Kuwait is the last,” Chhetri said while announcing his decision.

Chhetri’s final match will be played at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on June 6, and it is appropriate that he will end his journey in a city that is the sport’s spiritual home. India is currently second in Group A with four points, behind leaders Qatar. Chhetri had made his 150th national appearance in March and scored on the occasion against Afghanistan in Guwahati. India, however, lost that game 1-2.

A star is born

A prankster and backbencher, young Chhetri did not care much about football despite coming from a family rooted in the sport. Born in Secunderabad in then undivided Andhra Pradesh, his father represented the Indian Army, and his mother played for the Nepal national team along with her twin sisters. He picked up the sport merely to gain entry into a reputed college. However, his army-man father had higher hopes for him. He wished for Chhetri to achieve his dream of becoming a professional footballer. Chhetri’s career started to take shape in the national capital as he represented City Club Delhi from 2001-02.

Then came the big break as Indian club football heavyweights Mohun Bagan, enamoured by his skills with the ball, signed him in 2002. On his international debut against Pakistan way back in 2005, Chhetri, who would go on to become one of the game’s most lethal strikers, scored, and he rated it as his best moment.

“There is one day that I never forget and remember quite often. It is the first time I played for my country, man. It was unbelievable.” Chhetri recalled. His career had a breakthrough once again in 2011 when he was handed the captain’s armband by then-head coach Bob Houghton after Bhaichung Bhutia retired from international football following the Asian Cup.

His role was not restricted to finding the back of the net anymore. “The day I was given the armband, it was in Malaysia by Bob Houghton, there was an instant pressure because of what I was—a backbencher,” Chhetri said in 2023. “... Everything was a prank and I was mischievous. But when I wore the armband, for the initial three to four games I started sitting ahead.”

Despite increasing expectations and the pressure to deliver every time he took to the field, Sunil Chhetri performed his job with aplomb, often without enough support from his colleagues in top international tournaments such as the Asian Cup, AFC Challenge Cup, the World Cup Qualifiers, and the friendlies.

In India, after his touchstone stint with Mohun Bagan in 2002, he went on to feature for JCT (2005-08), East Bengal (2008-09), Dempo (2009-10), Chirag United (2011), Mohun Bagan (2011-12), Churchill Brothers (2013 on loan), and Bengaluru (2013-15, 2016-present). Outside Indian soil, he played with the Major League Soccer club Kansas City Wizards (2010) in the US, and the Portugal club Sporting CP (2012-13). These stints refined his striking game, making him a force to be reckoned with.

Beginnings of an end

Speaking on the future of Indian football, Chettri said that it was time for the country to find the next number 9. He felt the team is currently handicapped as none of the current lot of players play as the main striker for their respective clubs and sees the massive hole in the current national team.

In recent times, Chhetri said he could sense that he was heading towards the end of his glorious journey. “You know the feeling that I recollect in the last 19 years is a very nice combination (of) duty, pressure, and immense joy. I never thought individually, these are the many games that I’ve played for the country, this is what I’ve done, good or bad, but now I did it... And the moment I told myself first, that yes, this is the game that is going to be my last, is when I started recollecting everything.”

The sports community paid its tributes to the legendary footballer on social media. Bhaichung Bhutia, who Chhetri succeeded as captain, said that it was a great loss for Indian football. “Sunil, no doubt, will go down as one of the greatest players India had ever produced,” he said. “His contribution to Indian football is immense. It’s a great loss for Indian football.”

Only a few players become legends in their playing days and Sunil Chhetri belonged to that rare tribe, Indian national team head coach Igor Stimac said in a glowing tribute. “He knows best how he feels and when it’s the appropriate time to do things. I just wish we all do everything to make June 6 very memorable for him and all Indian football fans,” Stimac said. “He became a legend while still playing and that’s something only a few can do. He’s an inspiration to everyone, absolutely committed to the Indian jersey which is something these youngsters need to follow. Playing for the country with passion and love, and as he said with ‘intense joy’,” he added.

Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu said it was impossible to replace a legend like Chhetri. “It’s not difficult, it’s impossible to replace a legend like him in the dressing room, but we have to face the reality. I also hope Sunil bhai finds the mental and physical peace he deserves after serving the nation for almost two decades.”

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Indian football great I.M. Vijayan spoke glowingly of Chhetri’s leadership skills. “I consider Chhetri a great player, a terrific motivator, and an ideal captain... The kind of discipline Chhetri maintained throughout his career has made him a role model,” he said. “I tell youngsters to follow Chhetri’s lifestyle if they wish to prolong their careers. It will take some time before we get another footballer like Sunil Chhetri in India.”

Despite his enormous responsibility on the field, Chhetri thrived the longest in an ecosystem riddled with administrative apathy in Indian football. From FIFA suspension, and allegations of sexual harassment by its office-bearers and coaches, to rampant corruption and factionalism, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has seen it all. And Chhetri also saw them while giving it his all on the field.

By donning the blue jersey and the orange armband, and by finding the back of the net with consummate ease for nearly two decades, Sunil Chhetri succeeded in forcing the cricket-crazy nation to switch its focus to football.

With inputs from PTI, Reuters, and ANI.

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