In His Own Words – Sunil Chhetri on Retirement and Indian Football’s Future

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What does Sunil Chhetri mean to Indian football? This question might have popped up in the minds of many Indian football fans when Chhetri announced his international retirement on Thursday, May 16. To simply sum up, Chhetri, 39, has arguably been the greatest Indian to wear a pair of boots and step on the football field. Having made his debut for the Blue Tigers in 2005, Chhetri became synonymous with greatness in his career as he scored 94 goals in 150 games for India. 

In his time with the national team, which is set to end on June 6th against Kuwait at Kolkata, Chhetri achieved many accolades like the AFC Challengers Cup, Intercontinental Cup, and SAFF Championship to name a few. From an individual point of view as well, the Indian captain achieved plenty which made him a star attraction. This mixed with everything he has done for Indian football made fans emotional when he announced his retirement.

After announcing he would play his last match against Kuwait on June 6th, Chhetri was present at a virtual media interaction where he spoke about the love he received, and whether this love has taken away the focus from his upcoming match from a World Cup qualification point of view. He answered:

The second part is not that difficult. I have done it for the last 20 years. The first part was pleasantly shocking. Even though I have got more than the bargain when it comes to affection and love from the fans. But now, when I see it, not only on social media, but the messages that I’m getting is outstanding. I’m glad that I could have a little bit of impact like that on people…”

I’m outstandingly fortunate for getting so much love and, yeah, it’s surreal, it feels great. But today it ends and that is why we did this press conference, because from tomorrow we get it to the Kuwait game. So I have enjoyed the last two days. So much love, so much affection. It’s outstanding. Very few people get this. It’s very unique. I’m very fortunate and I don’t take it for granted, and the only way that I know to return back all this love is on the 6th. So thank you, thank you for all the messages to all of you. It means a lot.”

Sunil Chhetri during a game for India
Sunil Chhetri during a game for India

Chhetri announcing his retirement on Thursday shocked many football fans. After all, many people hoped they would see the Indian captain lead the team through the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualification. But his retirement ended these hopes and people questioned whether it was the physical aspect of football that made him quit. However, the 39-year-old denied the same and mentioned that physicality was never the issue. Explaining the reason, Chhetri added:

“Running, chasing, defending the physical part is never too difficult. It takes a little bit of hard work but it’s not too difficult. As I’ve aged, I’ve done better. It’s not me trying to boost myself. But it’s a mental part. As I said, it started with an instinct. I cannot explain it to you why it came, because even I don’t know when the instinct came that this is it, you should stop. And then I started thinking about a lot of things, but trust me, the physicality wasn’t one of them. If it was, I would have openly said it. But it’s not. Running, defending and fighting is the easier part than others in football.

Read: Sunil Chhetri- The Man you know, the Journey you don’t

Sunil Chhetri over the years has been the guiding light in Indian football. Not only has Chhetri been India’s best player, but he also mentored and guided several youngsters who have been doing well for the National team. Hence, apart from the Head Coach, there would be no one better than Chhetri to describe the future of Indian football. When asked about how he viewed India’s future in football once he retired, the Indian captain said: 

Very bright. I’m optimistic. A lot of fight for different positions. We did talk about the number 9 where there are a lot of candidates who are doing well. Unfortunately, they don’t play enough games in that position in ISL, and in due time I hope that changes. But a lot of the attacking players are doing really well.”

“Whether you take the two finalists, you know, the Liston and the Manveers, or the Bipin, Vikram Pratap, or the Changte or Thapa playing as a number 10, or Sahal, all these attacking players, they have done really well… We need to be a little bit patient. When I say we, I mean the whole country, but with the structure that we have with this team, the camaraderie and everything, I’m pretty sure to start with, a lot of boys are going to chip in and then eventually we’ll get one.

Chhetri
Sunil Chhetri during the AFC Asian Cup Group A match between India and the United Arab Emirates at Zayed Sports City Stadium

When Sunil Chhetri uploaded his retirement announcement video, he discussed a variety of topics ranging from his family to his career. However, towards the end, he said something that grabbed the attention of many. Chhetri said that he hoped his retirement brought joy to the people who wanted to see him retire. In the media interaction, the Indian forward was asked if such people who thought he overstayed in the national team had any part to play in his decision. Chhetri denied it and said: 

“No, that was a very small number when I said the ones who wanted me to retire. The majority of them were well-wishers. Also, it’s not only the few numbers who thought that I’ve overstayed or I should have retired early or whatever, but a lot of the majority of the people who genuinely wanted good for me and, in a good way, wanted me to retire. To them also. And to be honest, no matter what and which category you are in, the onus is not on you. That was just a nice dig that I hope everyone is happy.”

Due to what Sunil Chhetri has achieved as a player and as an individual, he is bound to be remembered by the people for a long time to come. Whether it’s being a 7-time AIFF Player of the Year, or receiving the Padma Shri and the Khel Ratna Award, Chhetri’s accolades have already earned him a place in Indian football and sports history. While people will remember him as an all-time great, Chhetri revealed how he would like to be remembered after his retirement. He said:

“A very good-looking and hardworking player. Before, when they asked me what was going to be my legacy, I never paid any heed. But now, when I think about it, the one legacy I want to have is that at least the footballers who come after me, when they remember me, they should think that he was a hard-working person, and that pays off. 150 games for the country because of the hard work. A lot of other attributes are important for a player to do well, but if there’s one thing that I want to leave behind me, that you got to work really hard. Of course, and the most good-looking player also.”

After the people soaked in the news of Sunil Chhetri’s retirement, the very next subject of discussion was what would he do once he retired. In the media interaction, the Bengaluru FC forward spoke about his immediate future after June 6th. He said:

“June 6th is when I retire. June 7th, I would spend a lot of time crying. From June 8th I will try and relax and take an off. There was 10 days off in between after my last ISL game but I did poorly because I got chicken pox and my wife and my kid are annoyed at me. My wife is more so because I gave her the chicken pox. So after June 8, I will take a break. I want to stay with my family and then from July 1st week, we’ll start our pre-season with Bengaluru FC.”

Sunil Chhetri
Sunil Chhetri during a game for India

Even though it will hurt not seeing Sunil Chhetri in Indian colors after June 6th, his fans will be delighted that they will get to see him play in the Indian Super League. However, until then, all eyes will be on the striker’s final game for India. When Chhetri takes to the field at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, he will indeed receive all the love from the fans. After all, Chhetri’s love affair with the city is famous, but most importantly his love affair with Indian football is what makes the fans love him.


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Varun Anand Bhat
Varun Anand Bhat
Varun Anand Bhat is a Sports Journalist with three years of experience under his belt. Throughout his career, Varun has covered several sports, but football remains his specialty. Having played the sport, Varun has the ability to analyze and write about games. He also has immense love and passion for Indian Football.

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