Bengaluru fans cherish the celebrated career of Indian football legend Sunil Chhetri

As Sunil Chhetri hangs up his international boots, fans reminisce the past, savour the present and worry about the future

Published - June 06, 2024 12:50 pm IST

Sunil Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri | Photo Credit: AFP

Sunil Chhetri’s 94 international goals were not just goals but thunderbolts that sent shivers down the opponents’ spines and ignited a nation’s passion. For more than a decade, he has been the leader at the helm, pushing Indian football to greater heights. Every minute of the 150 matches Chhetri played for India was high quality.

On May 16, Chhetri, in an emotionally moving video on his social media platforms, announced that all of this would end soon as he had made up his mind to give up international football. The news of his retirement from National duty caused a major outpour of emotions across India. Now, all eyes will turn towards Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium on June 6, where Chhetri will don the national colors for the final time, against Kuwait in the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier.

For young fans like Tejas, a 15-year-old supporter of Bengaluru FC (BFC), the club Chhetri has played for since 2013, the India skipper is more than just a player. “Seeing him play gives me motivation to be better at the game,” Tejas said. “My heart broke when I heard of his retirement. I hope he gets the well-deserved win in his final game against Kuwait.”

Amruth Kiranji, the head coach of the academy at South United Football Club (SUFC), praised Chhetri’s longevity and fitness. Chhetri will turn 40 on August 3, an age where most careers are long over.

Indian national football team captain Sunil Chhetri during a practice session ahead of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers match against Kuwait

Indian national football team captain Sunil Chhetri during a practice session ahead of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers match against Kuwait | Photo Credit: PTI

“Being somebody who follows the game so thoroughly, I saw it (the retirement) coming,” Kiranji said. “Sunil Chhetri is, after all, human first – husband, father, then footballer. Playing for two decades, alongside the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia to current players like Lallianzuala Chhangte and Manveer Singh, Chhetri displayed longevity and development. I hope that the upcoming generations understand that if you really want to be a master of a sport, you have to commit your personal, mental, and emotional self, just like Chhetri did.”

As much as Chhetri was Indian football’s leading light, he was parallelly BFC’s torchbearer. Making 267 appearances for the club, he led the team to the I-League title in the franchise’s inaugural season 2013-14, and then again in 2015-16 and helped bag the coveted Indian Super League crown in 2018-19.

His most famous night in BFC colours may however be the AFC Cup semifinal second leg against Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim in October 2016. BFC won 3-1 on the night (4-2 on aggregate), with Chhetri scoring a brace to make BFC the first-ever Indian club to reach the final of the AFC Cup, the second rung of Asian club football below the AFC Champions League.

As the curtain falls on Chhetri’s career it raises a big question. Who will carry the torch? “There is a huge void to fill,” said Anup Menon, a BFC season-pass holder and Indian football enthusiast. “Previously, when Chhetri played, there were national and international eyes on India games. After him, I do not see anyone being that recognisable a face. It will be a long way and Indian football has a lot of things to get right.”

It is to be pointed out that despite Chhetri, India is still outside the top-100 in FIFA rankings (121) and has never qualified for the World Cup. Pranav Trehan, CEO of SUFC, said: “In order for football to grow in this nation, we would need at least 20 more Chhetris in our squad.”

Sunil Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri | Photo Credit: AFP

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