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Captain, leader & path-breaker

On Thursday morning, in a nine minutes and 51 seconds video post on social media, Chhetri announced that he is retiring from international football after the 2026 World Cup qualifier against Kuwait in Kolkata on June 6.
Last Updated : 16 May 2024, 21:14 IST
Last Updated : 16 May 2024, 21:14 IST

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Bengaluru: Legends come and legends go, but few footballers leave behind a lasting legacy quite like that of Sunil Chhetri. 

On Thursday morning, in a nine minutes and 51 seconds video post on social media, Chhetri announced that he is retiring from international football after the 2026 World Cup qualifier against Kuwait in Kolkata on June 6. 

The 39-year-old will thus call time on a nearly two-decade international career which has seen him score 94 goals in 150 appearances and sit behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the list of active international goal-scorers.

“When the instinct came that this (Kuwait match) should be my last game, I thought about it a lot and eventually I came to this decision,” Chhetri said.

“It took time because the kid inside me never wanted to stop if given a chance to play for the country. I practically live a dream, but nothing comes close to playing for a country,” he added.

Among the salient features of Chhetri’s storied international career are his longevity and his penchant for coming up with important goals at crucial junctures. 

Chhetri also took over the national team captaincy from Bhaichung Bhutia in 2012 and has been an admirable leader, exemplifying dedication, grit and hard work. 

He managed to serve as the link throughout several periods of transition for the Blue Tigers, while continuing to conjure up individual bits of magic that helped India make rapid progress up the FIFA rankings and break into the top 100 in 2017.

Along with his prolific displays on the pitch, Chhetri has played a massive role in popularising football among Indians and unifying supporters in the quest for achieving the World Cup dream. 

“When I dream, I dream more as an Indian, more as a fan. Me being there in any capacity, it doesn’t matter, because I know I’ll be a fan. I’ll be watching every game that India plays and rooting for my country,” Chhetri had said in an interview with FIFA late last year.

His impassioned plea after netting a hat-trick against Chinese Taipei in the 2018 Intercontinental Cup in front of a largely empty Mumbai Football Arena saw a spectacular reception as supporters thronged the stadium for the following match against Kenya, and have continued to do so for home matches across the country ever since.

Incidentally, that Kenya fixture was Chhetri’s 100th match for India, and he lit up the occasion by scoring a brace.

India’s 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Kuwait is a must-win one by all means. India sit second in Group B, one point behind Qatar and are tied on points with Kuwait. Chhetri admitted that he would attempt to enjoy his last outing with the national team.

“Against Kuwait, the game demands pressure, but I am going to enjoy every training for the national team and I don’t feel the pressure, but I am going to miss everything about playing for India.”

The question of “Who after Sunil Chhetri?” is still an open-ended one, but Chhetri said that his long stint as the go-to man in front of goal has overshadowed the emergence of younger talents, and called for patience.

“It is time for the country to see the next number nine. We are already handicapped because a lot of our national team boys do not play as number nine for their clubs. I am sure so many of them can step up, and they will need time.”

Be it his goal on debut against Pakistan in 2005 or his hat-trick against the same opponents in the swirling Bengaluru rain last June, Sunil Chhetri has put down the marker for Indian football for eras. 

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Published 16 May 2024, 21:14 IST

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